Adobe Stock Photo
According to the Associated Press, a proposal in California to ban youth tackle football has cleared its first legislative hurdle. A heightened concern about concussions and the growing popularity of flag football was the rationale behind the ban. However, it is necessary to examine the reason separately in order to determine the true basis for the ban.
Concussion awareness has been increasing for nearly a decade.
In 2018, UM Medicine’s Sports Health and Safety Institute and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute discovered that concussion rates among football players aged 5 to 14 were higher than previously thought, with 5 out of every 100 youth football players suffering a football-related concussion each season.
California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Youth Football Act to decrease brain injuries in 2019. The legislation restricted full-contact practices to two days per week during the season and prohibited them during the offseason. The legislation also restricted full-contact sessions to 30 minutes per day.
Was there still a demand from Californians to ban tackling in youth football after this state-wide attempt to make the sport safer? No. Lawmakers drove this proposal, assuming flag football is a safer option.
According to CDC research, youth tackle football players aged 6 to 14 saw 15 times more head impacts than flag football athletes during practice or a game, as well as 23 times more high-magnitude head impacts.
These figures should come as no surprise.
Many of these head collisions in tackle football occur between the offensive and defensive lines, positions that are rare in flag football. Tackle football is 11-on-11, whereas flag football is typically 7-on-7. Based on the number of participants and positions, youth tackle football players have a greater risk of sustaining concussions.
However, the CDC’s website does not focus on risk reduction. It states we need more efforts to prevent head impacts during youth football games and that “we all play a role” in protecting young people from concussions. How can “we” prevent and protect? The CDC advises parents, schools, and sports programs to transition to non-contact games like flag football.
Has flag football been demonstrated to be safer despite posing a lower risk?
A California mother with three sons who have played both flag and tackle football does not believe flag football is safer. She stated, “Flag football is still a contact sport. If you think that since a 7-year-old boy is running up to collect a flag, they aren’t smashing into each other, you’re mistaken! We are talking about boys.” In her football experience, her boys were more injured when playing flag football because the players did not use protective equipment.
Of course, this mother could be talking about more cuts and bruises, which have nothing to do with concussions. However, the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine conducted a study hypothesizing that youth flag football has lower injury and concussion rates than youth contact football.
Their findings were the opposite.
The study found that injury rates in youth football were rather low. However, youth flag football had a higher injury rate than tackle football. There was no substantial difference in the rate of severe injury or concussion between tackle and flag football. The study couldn’t say that youth flag football was a safer alternative to youth tackle football.
This study supports the mother’s perspective, but the mother unknowingly brought up the real issue. She stated, “We’re talking about boys!”
Last year, The Christian Science Monitor published an article titled Flag on the Play: Why Flag Football is Growing Across the US. According to the author, football is America’s most popular sport, and girls want to play. “With the growth of the concussion crisis, flag football is the most socially and medically secure way for girls to play.” According to the Associated Press, flag football is gaining popularity across the country, particularly among girls. The sport has created scholarship opportunities for female athletes, with over two dozen NAIA colleges fielding women’s teams in 2023 and more preparing to join.
In other words, banning youth tackle football aims to level the playing field.
Football has traditionally been a boys’ club, a male-dominated endeavor. This proposal to ban youth tackle football is more about abolishing the boy’s club than reducing concussions.