SPRINGFIELD -- Wary of the potential long-term damage young football players can do to their brains, a suburban lawmaker has proposed limiting the number of days they can tackle in practice to once a week.
State Rep. Carol Sente, a Vernon Hills Democrat, said she proposed limiting tackling practice for players high school-age and younger to once a week to get a debate started, but the details of her proposal are likely to change via negotiations.
"What the bill says is limiting the hitting practice," Sente said. "But I think it is a much more complex issue, and I fully expect the bill will be amended based on what my research finds."
So as the nation turns its eyes and televisions to the Super Bowl this Sunday at a time when concern about football concussions has never been higher, state lawmakers might soon debate the same issue in Illinois.
Sente credited Dr. Larry Robbins, who runs the Robbins Headache Clinic in Northbrook, with inspiring the idea. He argues not enough is being done to protect young players and that the consequences can be significant.
"A child who plays football from age 7 to 18 will typically sustain 6,000 to 8,000 blows to the head during games and practices over the years," Robbins said. "These can add up over time, even without obvious symptoms, causing permanent brain injury."
Robbins said part of the reason he supports limiting full-contact practice to one day a week is the NFL and the Ivy League have successfully instituted similar policies.
That idea has already drawn opposition, though.
"Our concern with legislation such as this is while it may be appropriate for NFL or Ivy League, it may not be appropriate for high school leagues," Illinois High School Association Executive Director Marty Hickman said. "Limiting contact to one day a week may not be the best idea."
In fact, Adlai E. Stevenson High School Head Coach Bill McNamara argued, young players need practice in how to tackle safely.
"If you do not practice proper tackling technique, you are actually placing a player at a greater risk of receiving a head injury during a contest," McNamara said.
Currently, the IHSA does not limit the number of days a team can tackle in practice, leaving that to coaches' discretion.
"Individual coaches know what is best for the players and for their teams," McNamara said. "Allow the people closest to the players and to the game to make decisions about keeping players safe."
"Making safety measures voluntary through IHSA won't work," Robbins said. "Too many coaches who just think they know what they are doing is right are putting their players at risk."
Robbins quoted a 2012 University of Michigan study that used helmet sensors to show the average high school football player sustains about 650 head hits a season, with some having more than 2,000 hits. Robbins said around 70 percent of head hits come in practice.
It's not the first time state lawmakers could take on the issue of football injuries and young people. In 2011, House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego pushed legislation that requires high schools to educate their student-athletes on the dangers of concussions.
Hickman doesn't dismiss Sente's plan outright and left the door open for discussion.
"We are certainly willing to continue the safety discussion," Hickman said. "Our priority is to make football and any other sport as safe as it can be."