Should youth tackle football be banned? Forum presents both sides of debate

Supporters and opponents of a proposed law to ban tackle football for children younger than 12 debated Monday night before an audience of more than 100 people at the Sullivan Center in Vernon Hills.

Dr. Chris Nowinski, of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, says such a law would lessen the chance of brain damage. Nowinski, who played football at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights and Harvard University, compared the relationship between tackle football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy to the relationship between smoking and lung cancer.

“In our database, people who have played 20-plus years, they all have CTE,” Nowinski said, adding researchers have seen brain damage in people who stopped playing football after high school as well. “You have to prevent the number of years played.”

Nowinski was one of three panelists on the side of state Rep. Carol Sente, a Vernon Hills Democrat who introduced the bill in January.

Dr. Gerard Gioia, of Children's National Health System and founder and director of the Safe Concussion Outcome Recovery & Education, opposes the legislation, saying he doesn't believe the scientific data is sound enough to justify a ban.

“I couldn't be more in favor in assuring this game is as safe as possible,” Gioia said. “You're making assumptions based on early information that is not yet ready for policy direction.”

The bill is named after Dave Duerson, a former Chicago Bears defensive back. His son Tregg Duerson was another panelist. He said the CTE his father suffered as a result of playing football made him a shadow of his former self and led him to take his own life in 2011.

“He should have been a canary in the coal mine, but he wasn't,” Tregg Duerson said. “He's one of hundreds that have now had their lives destroyed by this disease.”

Gioia said experts know CTE is extremely serious but haven't established a clear-cut link to youth football.

Another key point of debate was whether it was the place of the government to step in and take the decision to allow children to play tackle football out of parents' hands.

Sente said she would prefer that the solution didn't come from the government but said because youth football, unlike soccer, is made of separate independent leagues, it's difficult to regulate. The American Youth Soccer Organization recently banned heading the ball for youth players because of concerns about injuries.

Panelist Geoff Meyer, president and co-founder of the Chicagoland Youth Football League, said if the game is taught the right way, concerns about CTE can be lessened. Meyer, who opposes the legislation, said although the panelists were on different sides, all were ultimately trying to do right by youth.

“We are merely friendly rivals tonight for the common goals of our children,” Meyer said.

  Youth football coach Jeff Nicoll speaks about parental decisions during the debate on tackle football Monday at the Sullivan Center in Vernon Hills. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  Parents and coaches at the Sullivan Center in Vernon Hills listen during Monday's debate on a proposed law to ban tackle football for children younger than 12. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
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