This is the first installment in our Things We’d Change in Sports series.
A little more than a year ago, former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland traveled to Washington D.C., to participate in a panel discussion about youth football — specifically, whether children should be banned from tackling before the age of 14.
He told reporters he loved the program, which was hosted by The Aspen Institute. And he loved being part of the panel, which featured former players, coaches, concussion researchers and parents.
But he didn’t exactly think the whole thing was necessary.
“I didn’t need to fly across the country to say, ‘Don’t hit a 5-year-old in the head,'” Borland said. “I hope we can stop that very soon.”
Amid growing research into the dangers of football and declining youth participation rates, Borland and other advocates want to start with what seems like a sensible change. Let’s not talk about banning football altogether, they say. Let’s just prevent children from playing tackle football until they’re 14 years old, when their bodies are better equipped to handle the impact.
With this shift, kids would grow up playing flag football before transitioning to tackle football in high school — just like youth baseball players start with T-ball before learning to hit pitches from a machine, a coach and, eventually, live pitchers.
“The kids don’t lose anything in this situation,” Chris Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview. “There’s no safety issue that’s known. There’s no football development issue that’s known — no child’s being recruited off their fifth-grade film. So you end up with healthier children, still playing football — just for fewer seasons of tackle.”
Last year, Nowinski’s organization launched the Flag Football Under 14 campaign to educate parents on the risks of tackling before high school. He said there is growing evidence not only of a link between repeated brain trauma and neurodegenerative diseases like CTE, but also that brain trauma at young ages, when the brain is still developing, can have long-lasting effects.
Most professional sports organizations have reacted to this research over the past decade by changing how they operate. US Soccer now bans heading before the age of 10. USA Hockey eliminated checking before 13. US Lacrosse now penalizes any contact to the head.
“Football’s on an island,” Nowinski, a former Harvard football player, said. “It’s the only sport now where children as young as 5 … are getting hit in the head hundreds of times.”
While some parents and diehard football fans might fear that postponing tackling will put children at greater risk of injury in high school, Nowinski said there is “literally zero evidence” of that, dismissing the notion as “fear-mongering.”
One reason this shift has not already occurred is youth football does not have a centralized governing body, like some other sports. So any widespread changes would likely have to come from state lawmakers. Bills seeking to ban tackle football for kids under 12 or 14 have been proposed — and failed — in five states to date, though Massachusetts legislators just put forth their own bill last month.
Though it might seem like a massive fundamental shift, to completely eliminate youth tackle football, Nowinski is confident it will happen, likely by legislative means — and sooner than one might think.
“I would say based on what I know today, that it’s guaranteed to happen,” Nowinski said. “And within five years.”
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.