SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California could become the first state to ban tackle football for children under 12 to reduce the risk of brain injuries under a bill that cleared a key legislative hurdle on Wednesday.
A legislative committee voted 5−2 during a public hearing to advance the bill authored by Democratic Assemblymember Kevin McCarty. But the measure is a long way from passing. It must clear the state Assembly by the end of January to have a chance of becoming law this year.
Advocates say the bill will protect kids from the risk of brain damage, which studies have shown increases the longer a person plays tackle football. But coaches and other football advocates say the ban would cut off kids from a source of exercise and an important after−school activity.
No state has banned tackle football for kids. McCarty introduced a similar bill in 2018 that failed to pass. Other proposals in New York and Illinois also failed to pass. The California proposal still has many steps to go through in the Legislature before it could become law.
“Football and organizational sports in general are clearly proven ways to keep kids out of trouble,” said Assemblymember Mike Gipson, chair of the state assembly’s committee in charge of regulating sports in California. “This bill is not taking away that ability, it is simply saying that we’re going to move from tackle football to flag football and we can still have the same learning experiences.”
McCarty told the committee Wednesday that, if approved, the measure would set rules to protect the brains of the youngest children and join measures that already regulate other contact sports in the state.
“Just like we have (rules) for soccer that you can’t head before a certain age in California, and in hockey that you can’t check before a certain age, (the bill) says to our youngest kids, ‘you can play flag football under 12 and over 12 you start having contact.’"
If passed, the ban would be gradually phased in, prohibiting children under 6 starting in 2025, under 10 in 2027 and those under 12 in 2029.
Flag football has been gaining popularity nationwide, especially for girls. The sport has provided scholarship opportunities for female players, with around two dozen NAIA schools fielding women’s teams in 2023 and more schools planning to join in upcoming seasons.
The NFL has promoted flag football, helping it to become an Olympic sport that will be included in the LA Games in 2028. The league has set up camps, clinics, a circuit and even exhibitions through its NFL FLAG program, which serves kids between the ages of 4 and 17.
According to research by USA Football, more than 1 million kids between the ages of 6 and 12 played the sport in 2022.
Research has shown tackle football causes brain damage, and the risk increases the longer people play football, said Chris Nowinski, CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and former Harvard football player and WWE professional wrestler. It can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which kills nerve cells in the brain.
“I don’t have a problem with NFL players, who are adults and understand the risk and are compensated, risking CTE,” Nowinski said. “I can’t imagine a world in which we have children, who don’t understand the risk, doing this for fun (and) taking the same risk with their brain.”
California law already bans full−contact practices for high school and youth football teams during the offseason and limits them to two practices per week during the preseason and regular season. A law that took effect in 2021 also requires youth football officials to complete concussion and head injury education in addition to other safeguards.
Ron White, president of the California Youth Football Alliance, said the measure is misguided and discriminatory because if passed, it will greatly impact underserved communities. White also said the science on CTE is constantly evolving.
“There is not medical consensus in this area, far from it," White said. "So, when you’re informing public policy, we believe that the (legislative) body should really take that into consideration and know there’s competing science and work with the people, not against them.”
Tackle football at the high school level has been declining in California. Participation dropped more than 18% from 2015 to 2022, falling from a high of 103,725 players to 84,626 players, according to the California Interscholastic Federation’s participation survey. Football participation increased by 5% in 2023, up to 89,178 players.
Rodriguez reported from San Francisco. Associated Press sports writer Pat Graham in Denver and Associated Press reporter Terry Chea in Sacramento contributed to this report.
Adam Beam And Olga R. Rodriguez, The Associated Press