Ex-Bears in mind in bill to ban tackle football for kids under 12
Should pre-teens be prohibited from playing on tackle football teams?
State Rep. Carol Sente says yes, and on Thursday she called for a ban for children under 12 in a bill named for former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson, who had brain damage linked to repeated blows to the head.
Duerson's son, and former Bears players Mike Adamle and Otis Wilson stood with Sente at a news conference in Chicago as she announced the effort, which she said is aimed at protecting the brains and futures of young athletes.
"As the science and data move forward and progress, so must we," said Sente, a Democrat from Vernon Hills. "We can protect children's brains and we can protect football."
If Sente's bill is passed, children under 12 would not be able to "participate in tackle football offered by an organized youth sports program."
But leaders of some youth football leagues in the suburbs said such a ban could leave youngsters unprepared and untrained in ways to play safely when they do begin to play tackle.
Jack Arnett, the regional director for Mid-America Pop Warner Football, said the league efforts have moved toward training coaches and players to play the game the right way. Doing that and decreasing practice time are ways their medical experts say they can mitigate the risks associated with youth football, Arnett said.
"We can't imagine elected officials mandating to parents which sports their children can play," Pop Warner spokesman Brian Heffron said. "While we encourage conversations on player safety, we do not agree banning football for young people is the answer."
Dr. Chris Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, said at Thursday's news conference the risk of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, appears to be linked to the number of years of tackle football is played, similar to how the risk of lung cancer is best correlated to the number of years someone has been smoking cigarettes.
"This isn't about an act to ban tackle football. This is about an act to prevent children from being hit in the head hundreds of times through sports each season," said Nowinski, who played football at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights and Harvard University.
Duerson, a star safety on the Bears' 1985 Super Bowl champion team, took his life in 2011 at age 50. After his death, researchers at Boston University found he had suffered CTE, which has been linked to concussions and repeated blows to the head. Adamle, a longtime sportscaster, last year disclosed symptoms he says could be from CTE.
Boston University last year reported an association between participation in youth tackle football before age 12 and impaired mood and behavior later in life.
Duerson's son, Tregg , said the bill will protect not only children but football as well. He noted that he grew up playing in a youth tackle football organization in Highland Park that no longer exists.
"That program doesn't exist anymore today, and the reason it doesn't exist is because children didn't show up. It didn't go away because a government official said for it to go away," he said.
Last fall, just 11 boys showed up for Highland Park's tackle program for fifth- to eighth-graders, and parks officials canceled it. Park district Executive Director Liza McElroy said at the time flag football was flourishing, with about 100 kids in grades 1 through 8.
Sente's bill comes as participation in tackle football is declining in all age groups in the suburbs.
A 2017 Daily Herald/Chicago Sun-Times analysis showed the number of high school students participating in football across the suburbs has dropped 18.7 percent since 2008, with some programs plummeting 40 percent or more.
The Bill George Youth Football League had 156 teams last year compared to about 190 in 2012, board President Jerry Miller said last fall. The tackle league has teams in Arlington Heights, Bartlett, Hanover Park, Carol Stream, Palatine, Wheaton and Glen Ellyn, among others.
The Chicagoland Youth Football League, which is based in Lake Zurich and has players from 38 communities in the Chicago area and southeastern Wisconsin, peaked at about 9,800 players in 2008 and was down to roughly 6,700 in the fall, President Geoff Meyer said last year.
Meyer is the chairman of the NFL and USA Football's Commissioner Advisory Committee, which has been tasked with looking into ways to make the game safer. Meyer said Thursday he hasn't seen any evidence that children who quit after youth football get CTE.
"Where is that science?" Meyer said. "It seems like playing at a high energy level is the culprit."
Arnett said he doesn't think Sente's bill will become law.
"This isn't something new," Arnett said, referring to bills like Sente's. "Other bills haven't gotten out of committee, and frankly we don't expect this one to, either."