Debate over youth tackle football an extension of country's polarized politics

In the weeks immediately before and after this past Super Bowl, legislators in four states introduced bills to ban youth tackle football, citing research that linked the sport to possible brain damage. Over the ensuing months, a fifth politician proposed similar legislation.

But as another football season gathers momentum, the opposite has been true for those legislative efforts: the bills either died quickly or were shelved, upended largely by a grassroots movement of parents and coaches -- with tacit assistance from the NFL and organized football -- who believe the sport is under assault by opportunistic lawmakers and scientists.

Regardless, the battle over children playing tackle football isn't waning. About 1 million youth between the ages of 6 and 12 play tackle, and the question of whether that's a good idea is being debated more than ever -- by lawmakers, NFL Hall of Famers, researchers, parents and coaches. Earlier this month, an international nonprofit think-tank, the Aspen Institute, published a white paper stating that tackle football should be played only in high school.

The debate has become an extension of the country's polarized politics, replete with references to the nanny state and charges of corporate negligence. It should sound familiar to anyone who has followed football's concussion crisis: One side arguing that the sport's advocates are putting their self-interests ahead of science and player health, the other insisting that football is safer than ever and certain researchers are manipulating data to fit a false narrative that football destroys brains.

"I don't want to be naïve about this, but part of me thinks this could actually save this sport by alleviating some of the realities and fears and dealing with the kids who are most at risk," said California Rep. Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), who introduced a state bill that he subsequently withdrew when voter pushback became too strong and it became clear he didn't have the votes.

Others, though, see the movement as merely the beginning stages of a larger attack on the sport.

"I think going after youth tackle football is the low-hanging fruit in an effort to end tackle football," said Todd Bloomstine, a registered lobbyist in California who runs a youth tackle program and was instrumental in getting McCarty to withdraw his bill.

Although the bill in California -- as well as similar ones in Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Maryland -- came and went quickly, several lawmakers have indicated that they expect to try anew. In each case, the bills were proposed by Democratic lawmakers in Democrat-controlled legislatures (save for New York, which is split). As midterm elections approach, a closer examination of two of the legislative fights not only provides an inside look at the politics but also presages future debate.

The Illinois effort

On Jan. 25, 10 days before the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots met in Super Bowl LII, Illinois assemblywoman Carol Sente (D-Vernon Hills) introduced the "Dave Duerson Act." Sente, who grew up a Bears fan in the Chicago suburbs, named the bill after the former defensive back who killed himself at age 50. Duerson later was determined to have been suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease that has been found in more than 100 former NFL players.

In 2013, Sente proposed a bill to limit contact in high school football practices. That bill died so quickly -- it never even got out of committee -- that it still makes the state representative wince. However, Sente did get a bill passed the following year requiring high school coaches and athletic directors to be trained in identifying and understanding concussions. During those efforts, she met Chris Nowinski, an Illinois native, researcher and advocate who runs the Concussion Legacy Foundation in Boston and has been a longtime critic of the NFL.

By 2016, Sente was ready to propose a tackling ban, and she met with Nowinski. The two discussed at what age to set the limit, and he pointed to research from his colleagues at Boston University that supported 12 as a cut-off. (Even so, Nowinski's organization has a program encouraging children to play flag until 14.)

Sente says she delved into the research, going to games, talking to coaches and reading "books and white papers" while preparing a game plan for introducing the bill earlier this year. Sente learned from the 2013 failure that she would need a concerted lobbying plan if she hoped to have any success, and Nowinski introduced her to Liz Nicholson Sullivan. Nicholson Sullivan's husband, former Browns lineman Gerry Sullivan, suffered from early-onset dementia. Liz was a powerful Illinois political operative, and her sister, Helen Kwan, was an Illinois lobbyist.

The three were determined to carry the bill as far as it could go, but they needed a recognizable name in the fight.

Sente and her team asked the Duersons to join the cause, and Duerson's oldest son, Tregg, became the face of the bill. He attended a Jan. 25 news conference to announce the legislation, at which Sente told the gathered media, "As the science and data move forward and progress, so must we. We can protect children's brains, and we can protect football."

In a story detailing the event, the Chicago Tribune quoted Jack Arnett, the regional director for Mid-America Pop Warner Football, dismissing the effort.

"This isn't something new," Arnett told the Tribune. "Other bills haven't gotten out of committee, and frankly, we don't expect this one to, either."

"It was really a shock, to be honest with you, to think that we're trying to outlaw youth tackle football. That doesn't feel American to me. Americans run into the chaos. We run into the burning building, and we save things, and we fix things, and we invent things, and we create new stuff. We don't say, 'Oh, that's too scary for us. Let's just make it illegal." Joe Rafter, founder of savecaliforniayouthfootball.com

Indeed, few people gave the bill much chance to become law. When Sente posted about the effort on her Facebook page, the responses were swift and virtually unanimous: The bill was an awful, ill-informed overreach. One critic wrote, "Carol Sente, you are a sexist and this is just your own personal attack against males in a male dominated sport, and since many less fortunate kids have used football as a means to better themselves you are a stuck up snob. Go back to your dollhouse in your uppity neighborhood, and leave the child rearing to grown ups."

But while the online pushback was strong, opponents of the legislation had yet to coalesce politically. The bill was scheduled to be heard March 1 by the 21-member Mental Health Committee, and Sente's team began lobbying for the 11 votes needed to defy Arnett's prediction.

By the day of the hearing, the vote looked like a toss-up. Yet Sente's group put on a powerful show, climaxed by Chris Borland, the former NFL player who famously retired after his rookie season over concerns about the long-term effects of repetitive hits to his head. In a clip that got widespread media coverage, Borland stood next to a child-sized dummy dressed in a Bears jersey and helmet, wielded another helmet and repeatedly banged it against the dummy to replicate a football collision.

"Those accumulate over time," Borland told the committee members. "I've got 15 nieces and nephews, half of which are boys. I don't have children, but I can't imagine knowingly subjecting them to this for as many as 15 years."

When the vote was in, the bill passed out of committee, 11-9 (one member didn't vote). One Republican voted in favor of it. The group celebrated as if it had pulled off a last-second victory.

As word spread, the opposition began to stir. Within days, Keith Yerian, who manages a youth football league in Central Illinois, tweeted that the bill would "definitely devastate our league." He added that he would be on a conference call with other leagues, "sponsored by USA Football, and we will develop a 'plan of attack' against this bill. Stay tuned."

Out on the West Coast, a plan of attack already was in full swing.

The California effort

On Feb. 7 -- three days after the Eagles' riveting win over the Patriots and as the Illinois group was furiously lobbying for its bill -- two California legislators introduced a bill to ban youth tackle football. Chris Fore couldn't believe it.

"When I first heard about [the bill], I thought, 'It's ridiculous to legislate something that we don't really have a firm grasp on medically,'" said Fore, a high school football coach, teacher and athletic administrator over the past 16 years in Southern California.

On Feb. 9, Fore launched a Twitter account, @SaveCAFootball, birthing a movement. Over the next week, Fore contacted a slew of other coaches, many of whom also were parents of children playing the sport; held an "emergency meeting" of the Southern California Interscholastic Football Coaches Association; and spoke with at least two lobbyists, one of whom ran a youth program in Sacramento, the state capital. Fore also reached out to USA Football and was directed to Melinda Whitemarsh, the organization's senior director of communications, for advice about fighting the bill. USA Football, which was created in 2002 and is funded by the NFL and the NFL Players Association, is the national governing body for amateur football.

On Feb. 19, Fore hosted a conference call with about 30 leaders of youth football programs throughout the state. Whitemarsh was on the line, too. From that call, five leaders began a coordinated fight against the bill, forming what they called the "Save Youth Football California Coalition."

Among the five was Bloomstine, whose program in the Sacramento area has about 85 kids, age 6 to 14. "There aren't many lobbyists that also run a youth tackle football program, so I found myself in the unique position to help out in this effort."

Another volunteer was Joe Rafter, who runs a program for youth age 7 to 14 in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Rafter has three boys -- 15, 14 and 9 -- two of whom started tackle at 8, the youngest at 7. Two still play -- one in Rafter's league, the other in high school -- while the 14-year-old turned to riding horses instead. Rafter said he had a visceral reaction when he heard of the California bill.

"It was really a shock, to be honest with you, to think that we're trying to outlaw youth tackle football," said Rafter, who says he played college football for three seasons at Division III Catholic University. "That doesn't feel American to me. Americans run into the chaos. We run into the burning building, and we save things, and we fix things, and we invent things, and we create new stuff. We don't say, 'Oh, that's too scary for us. Let's just make it illegal.'"

Rafter says the sport is safer now than ever, given recent efforts to take the head collisions out of the game. A ban is a step too far because, he believes, the science isn't convincing.

"Let the science play out," he said. "Wherever the science goes, it's gonna go, but in the meantime, let's do everything we can to make our sport as safe as possible. Because these boys and girls who play this sport, there's value. Nobody wants to have the value conversation, right? There's a tremendous amount of value that these kids get out of it. And if you take this away, with all due respect, you're not gonna get it out of flag. You don't get it out of baseball or basketball or lacrosse."

The day after Fore's conference call, Rafter purchased the domain Savecaliforniayouthfootball.com, and he launched the site quickly to coincide with a news conference Fore had organized for Feb. 24 in Southern California. Fore hoped for some NFL or NCAA presence at the event, but all he got was silence. He says he reached out to every Division I college program in the state to see if it would send a representative. He said only USC officials responded; he was told they were busy. Fore says he also sent emails and called a handful of people from the state's four NFL teams, but, again, he got no response.

The NFL appears to have hedged its bets in the debate. On the one hand, USA Football provided support and, in some cases, lobbied against the bill, and at least two NFL teams -- the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams -- reached out to politicians to make the case against the California legislation. Yet one league source and one with knowledge of the lobbying effort on behalf of youth tackle football told Outside the Lines that the league encouraged teams to stay out of the fray, possibly because of the NFL's years of negative publicity surrounding concussions. As well, the NFL and USA Football have been more aggressively pushing flag football leagues for youths.

An NFL spokesman had no comment about whether the league took a position or lobbied on any of the proposed legislation but provided a statement from the league: "An age-specific ban on tackle football or any other sport eliminates options for youth athletes and their families. Scientific studies show an overwhelmingly positive impact on kids who play sports. We should be encouraging more kids to participate, not regulating sports out of existence. As with any activity, parents should be well informed about their children playing football -- including coaching certifications, protective equipment, and best practices around health and safety. The NFL supports a wide range of programs to encourage young people to be physically active, to participate in sports, and to do so in a way that is safe, fun, and that promotes good values."

Representatives for football equipment manufacturers took a more direct role in addressing the bills. In May, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a trade organization that represents, among others, football equipment manufacturers, stated that it had come out in "strong opposition" to all of the bills. At the time, three already had been shelved, and the SFIA took credit for keeping those from becoming law.

"Our position, in general, is that we don't believe state or federal legislatures are the first or even second resort to making playing rules for sports," said Tom Cove, the president and chief executive officer of the SFIA.

Cove said his organization didn't officially lobby against the bills but did provide information and guidance to the grassroots efforts.

USA Football CEO Scott Hallenbeck, Whitemarsh and Pop Warner Executive Director Jon Butler went to Sacramento to lobby, though by that time Rafter & Co. had already overwhelmed legislators with a campaign driven by parents, coaches and league administrators.

"We devised the lobbying strategy largely from [Bloomstine's] input," Rafter said of the Sacramento lobbyist. "He said, 'Here's how you beat a bill like this: It's gonna be grassroots. We're gonna flood the assembly members' offices.'"

Indeed, what emerged was a well-organized operation using social media to launch coordinated attacks on politicians and researchers. Through the website, they pushed a letter-writing and phone campaign that directed parents, players, coaches, league administrators and others associated with youth football to contact the seven members of the Committee on Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media, which was scheduled to vote on the bill May 1.

The website posted directives on how best to implement the plan. It was a call to action led by Rafter, using football terminology: "Please find below our Playbook, of actions that should be taken by Leagues, Associations and Families. WE ARE CURRENTLY EXECUTING ON PHASE 2 & 3 OF OUR PLAYBOOK."

Users were advised on how to personalize the letters and told where, when and to whom they should be sent.

The group coordinated two rallies: one in front of the Capitol building and another in Santa Clara, home to the 49ers and, as it happened, Assemblyman Kansen Chu, the Democrat who headed the committee.

McCarty, for his part, wasn't prepared for the kind of pushback he received. Two years earlier, he had ushered the passage of a law requiring youth leagues to follow specific concussion protocol. McCarty was helped by Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who set football's concussion crisis in motion with his discovery of CTE in a former NFL player.

"I was actually pretty naïve at first," McCarty said. "I knew there'd be strong opposition from the parents and the leagues, but I was actually, I don't know why, but I thought maybe the NFL would support it."

Omalu had imagined the same thing when he made his findings back in 2005 -- only to have NFL doctors attack him.

"I thought that they were pushing more flag football, and they would see this is a way to save football," McCarty said of the NFL. "And so I thought, well, maybe they would embrace this not by saying, 'Our game is dangerous,' but saying, 'You know, like alcohol or tobacco, we like these products for society, but maybe [for] little kids it's not good with their brains.'"

Rafter's group met with McCarty in what both sides described as a tense, unproductive meeting. But what did seem to help the football advocates was a session with Dana Mitchell, the analyst for the committee slated to vote on the bill. Mitchell's role was to assess the bill and offer a written report prior to the vote.

A former civil rights lawyer, Mitchell says she grew up in the South, where "football is religion." She says she's a big fan, "So I had to be super cognizant of taking any preconception or bias I had and setting it aside because there was no way in hell I was going to let my particular feelings about a sport get in the way of protecting [children] in California."

Ultimately, Mitchell says she became convinced that it was premature to ban tackle for youths.

Mitchell says she came to believe that some people might just be genetically predisposed to get CTE -- a theory posited by some researchers but yet to be proven. She also says she examined rule changes and improved training methods to conclude that safe tackle football "was supportable," and she viewed the popularity of football as critical in the fight against childhood obesity.

It all sounded familiar to Nowinski, whom McCarty asked to speak with Mitchell and committee chair Chu.

"I got a sense that I was late to the party, that their minds were made up before we had that conversation," Nowinski said.

As he reflected on arguments he heard from coaches, parents and legislators fighting against the bills, Nowinski said, "What has shocked me the most is that the proposed scientific arguments against the bill are fake news. It's the same stuff that the NFL has been trying to say for the last 20 years, and I'm concerned that these parents are being misled by the industry again."

In the end, Mitchell never even had to produce her report.

On April 26, as the Cleveland Browns were preparing to select Baker Mayfield with the first pick of the NFL draft, McCarty was facing a hard truth: His bill wasn't going to get out of committee. So he abruptly pulled it.

Rafter was in New Jersey for business when he got the word via text from another member of the coalition.

"My emotions were overwhelmed," Rafter said.

Across the Hudson River, Rafter says he could see New York's Freedom Tower and decided to take a selfie video, which he later posted on savecaliforniayouthfootball.com. In it, Rafter grows increasingly emotional. He starts crying at one point.

"We have saved youth football. It's an emotional moment for all of us. Couldn't have done it without the 130,000 football families in this great state of California. Way to go. ... Let's plant the flag on this one. We've done a great job. We've protected our right to continue to choose as parents what sports our children play."

A week earlier, in Illinois, Sente had faced the same realization as McCarty: She didn't have the votes. She had taken her bill much further than McCarty or any of the legislators in the four other states had, but in the end, she was done in by the same wave of hostility that stifled the California legislation.

"All of us knew this was a long game," she said.

Although Sente announced last year that she doesn't plan to run for re-election -- ending a nine-year stint -- she says she's intent on the bill becoming law. She says she has another legislator lined up to carry the torch when the next term begins after the November elections, and she plans to speak on the floor of the house about the issue's importance before leaving the political stage.

"I think it is absolutely only a matter of time before this bill passes in Illinois," Sente said.

One thing the bill has going for it is the support of Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre. In June, he suggested not only that he backed the Illinois legislation but also that he endorsed a nationwide ban on kids playing tackle; he told London's Daily Mail, "The state level is a start, but we have to adopt this plan and all do it together. The body, the brain, the skull is not developed in your teens and single digits. I cringe." A few days after Favre's comments, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, now CBS' top analyst, also said he thinks kids should play only flag, marking the latest in a growing number of former NFL players who have said they don't support tackle for young children.

In California, state Rep. Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego), who coauthored the California bill with McCarty, predicted that change would come. Eventually.

"I just think there's more studies coming," said Fletcher, a former Stanford cheerleader who says she loves football. "Something big like this takes some time to settle in. I think that the information needs to be widely distributed, and people need to grow more comfortable."

Rafter and the others have different ideas. After McCarty's bill was shelved, the Save California Youth Football coalition released a statement to its supporters:

"We are optimistic that if this or similar legislation is presented in the future, we will, once again, mobilize, vocalize, and work alongside with all of you to ensure the future of the sport of youth tackle football and all those it serves."