In recent years, we’ve learned that the sport of football can damage not just players’ bodies, but their brains. Now, the concern has turned to children, and whether or not playing tackle football at a young age increases risk for developing the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Last week, Illinois state Rep. Carol Sente introduced legislation that would ban tackling in youth football for children under age 12. The proposed act is named after former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who took his own life in 2012 and asked for his brain to be used for CTE research.
Critics say that more and better training – rather than more laws – will keep Illinois children safe. Is this a decision that’s better left to parents, or government?
We discuss the Duerson Act with Tregg Duerson, son of Dave Duerson and a member of the coalition supporting the act named for his father; and Geoff Meyer, president of the Chicagoland Youth Football League.
Tregg Duerson: We think it’s going to benefit how they develop as players. It allows us to put an emphasis on fundamentals and technique, and that’s a cornerstone for football.
Children below 12 are not very big – a 10-year-old’s 50 pounds, the helmet is 5 pounds, that’s 10 percent of their body mass on their head. We’re lying to ourselves that we’re teaching them good footwork, technique with all this padding. And also when we think about the future development of players, some of the greatest players of all time – Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Jerry Rice, Lawrence Taylor and Tom Brady, who’s playing in the Super Bowl this weekend – started playing in high school. I think that’s where the bulk of the development should be.
I played at Notre Dame, obviously my father played for a long time. When he was teaching me, we didn’t talk about physicality, we didn’t talk about hitting, we talked about understanding the preparation and challenge that goes into football, why certain plays are called, how you use all the things around you, understanding field position – more of the tactical and strategic aspects of the game.
If we take away tackling, is that just a step to making football obsolete?
No, I don’t think so – mainly because the pro sport is about entertainment, and there’s still going to be a great degree of appetite for people to play with tackling, the traditional form. It could be different in terms of how the sport is played whether through an increased use in technology or adding more players to each team in order to give more players rest. But there’s still going to be football, and the future of football is still going to look similar to today’s game.
The Super Bowl is still going to gross billions of dollars and have huge viewership – and right now we’re at peak concussion awareness. As long as people are making millions by suiting up and playing there’s still going to be enough players for teams to play.
In the time since you played college football in the early 2000s, how has football changed regarding safety?
We’re in a period where awareness [of CTE] is at a high level and we’ve increased the amount of education programs out there about concussions to parents and players, it’s influencing large companies to create technology to help the game become safer, to know when removing an athlete from the field is necessary. Safety has increased since then. Since my dad died, it’s been pretty amazing how safety has emerged as a forefront issue, but that doesn’t mean football is safe. There’s only so much we can do, there’s inherent risk to the game. No amount of tech or equipment that can take the danger of the game away.
And we have to acknowledge that teaching football is also a ZIP code problem: Disadvantaged communities do not have the resources to provide as safe a game as middle-class communities. When I was playing in high school we had two or three trainers on staff at practices and at games. Compare that to CPS. In 2012 my family gave a donation for CPS to do concussion education and there was not one trainer available – there’s an ambulance there during games, but not during the practices, and there are more practices than games – so we were having to teach coaches and students on how to do concussions tests so they’d have a chance to be safer when they’re playing. And there’s a resource gap between the middle- and lower-class communities playing this game, and this leads to different access to technology. Some of these youth programs have to accept hand-me-downs, equipment that is old and outdated – how can we can be sure that these helmets and pads are working like they’re supposed to?
Do you think safety equipment like helmets and pads actually make the game less safe?
I do. I think that modernization of football equipment has created an environment where it’s not used as protection; it’s used as a weapon. It’s armor, and as a player you figure out how to dip your shoulders or head to pick up an extra yard or two.
What have you been hearing from people about the proposed Duerson Act?
I would say most parents I’ve talked to are in favor of this. They acknowledge that there are dangers that we know about head injuries and that we should address it. A majority of adults believe that children under 14 shouldn’t be playing tackle football at all.
There are two reasons why we went this route. The first is there are obvious health concerns and there are dangers to playing tackle football under 12, this key development time for the brain. Exposure to repeated concussive hits can lead to long-term issues. Lots of parents have taken their kids out, but lots haven’t. We’ve got an obligation to protect every child – people are still disregarding the research.
The second is that unlike other major sports, youth football governing bodies are fairly weak and pale in comparison to other sports, because football is not an Olympic sport. Because they’re Olympic sports, sports like soccer and hockey have been organizing youth leagues since the 1920s and that’s a long history of influence and organization. Because of that, they’ve been able to pass age modifications that parents have accepted – for instance a child can’t body check in hockey until they’re older than 13, soccer players can’t head the ball in games until they’re 14.
Geoff Meyer: Football is not perfect, just like life. What I want to see is working together to improve the game. It’s never been safer than it is today, it continues to evolve and improve. So that’s kind of what my premise is in the things that I talk about – football affords us a lot of options for children – it’s not for all children, but all children are afforded equal opportunities to participate in our sport. It’s opportunity to touch, enrich and improve lives. And it’s not just physical, there’s psychological and social development and I don’t want to see that go away.
Football is not perfect but it is about striving about perfection, and I want to use education and training to continue to work together to improve our game.
They’re talking about banning tackle football before age 12 – I see that as eliminating our choices. Right now our children and their parents have a choice to play tackle football, non-tackle football, or no football at all. Some parents will choose to not let their children play until they are 12 and that’s their choice. I want to make sure that we’re not taking away options and overregulating. I think it’s the opposite of what’s needed. They’re citing that exposure studies found that athletes at high levels who began tackle football before age 12 were more likely to see harmful effects, but they’re using evidence from a different era. They’re using a study of pro football players’ brains that says 87 percent of them have CTE, but only two of them they studied were children’s brains – which is good because that means nearly no children are dying from CTE – and the two did not have CTE.
Those are the kinds of questions I’m asking, trying to make the game safer for everyone.
What is your league doing to educate coaches and players now?
We’ve been doing concussion awareness training since 2012. When we started doing our training, Chris Nowinski (CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation) called and said, “Please show me where you’re going with this.” We got together, and I did an advanced concussion video that is still used today as one of three key components for our coaches. The other is a coaching alliance seminar as well as a USA football Heads Up football certification. These are things that we keep putting in place and you’ll see in the video, Chris gets up and talks about all of the great things we do.
As a coach, I always taught all my kids to always see what they were tackling, and that’s part of what we teach now in Heads Up. Before, we were always also taught to get low and wrap up.
There’s a study they did in Iowa this past season that they took a flag football league and tackle football leagues, and measured all their injuries and rate of concussions. The percentage of concussions of flag was twice as much as tackle. I look at these numbers and I’m all about working together. I just think there’s a better way to honor Tregg’s father’s legacy and I want to help him do that, but to penalize and take away something – a choice – for our youth, I don’t think it’s the right way to do that.
Of all times right now, we need more football for our youth. It’s a big melting pot. There are no racial barriers in football. You can see on one football team, you can see black, white, yellow, green, orange, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim. I don’t think any other sport does that, because football has a position for every child – it may not be for every child, but it doesn’t matter how big, small, slow, fast, there is an equal opportunity for children in football if they so choose – and that’s what I love.
Jan. 25: Nearly seven years after former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson took his own life, a bill bearing his name will aim to prevent the disease that is believed to have led to his suicide.
Nov. 1: Otis Wilson was a key member of the Chicago Bears 1985 Super Bowl team. He joins us to discuss his new book “If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from the Chicago Bears Sideline, Locker Room, and Press Box.”
Oct. 26: Youth football seems to be taking a hit. We speak with a Daily Herald investigative reporter about steep declines in high school football participation.