By Dionne Koller
Recently, a committee of the Maryland House of Delegates overwhelmingly rejected a bill that sought to prohibit elementary and middle school-aged children from playing tackle football, among other designated “physical sports.” The legislator sponsoring House Bill 552 later stated that she did not expect it to pass, but that she wanted to simply start a conversation about the safety of some of our most popular youth sports in America.
From a policy perspective, the bill was likely to be a hard sell based on its sweeping coverage. The legislation sought to not simply prohibit tackle football, but also heading in soccer; ice hockey, field hockey, and lacrosse, in which body checking is permitted; tackle rugby; and any other sport that presents a high risk of head injury. The bill covered school-based sports as well as private recreational youth sports programs. The broad nature of the proposed legislation meant that nearly every witness testified against the bill, and nearly every member of the committee voted against it.
Yet the efforts in Maryland, and in other jurisdictions to limit tackle football, is the predictable next step in a process of using the law to address the youth sports concussion problem. The movement started a decade ago with statutes passed in all 50 states requiring athletes who are suspected of sustaining a concussion to be removed from play and not permitted to return until being cleared by a healthcare professional. The goal was to limit the harm from “second-impact syndrome” and prevent further injury after the initial concussion. Although federal legislation addressing the issue has been frequently introduced, Congress has never acted on it.
At the time, the state statutes and federal interest were significant because government regulation of sport, especially over how the games are played, is rare. Sports leagues and programs have typically enjoyed a substantial amount of deference to set the terms of participation and the content of the games without courts or legislatures interfering. Critics have noted, however, that youth sports concussion statutes actually do little to protect young athletes. The statutes do not prevent the initial head injury, and provide no penalties or enforcement mechanism if an athlete is not removed from the game or properly cleared to return. While the statutes have served to alert parents and coaches to the problem of head injury in youth sports (thereby increasing concussion reporting), and evidence suggests that the laws have also decreased the rate of recurrent concussions, the statutes have not protected children from the initial concussion injury.
From this perspective, the conversation happening in Maryland and across the country is needed, and proposed legislation is doing some of the talking. We are in the process of normative change that will certainly transform the game of youth football, and likely other sports played by children that include concussive and subconcussive head impacts such as ice hockey and soccer. Without any legal mandate, parents are voting with their feet: fewer children are participating in youth football. Nearly 90% of parents have concerns about safety in sports and a quarter have considered keeping their kid on the sidelines, citing fears of head injuries. Whether a child should participate has even been an issue in custody disputes.
From a policy perspective, states should continue exploring ways of ensuring that sports participation — not just youth football — can be safer and more accessible for greater numbers of children. To do this, states should begin by looking closely at the role of sports in schools, and consider models that emphasize participation, wellness, and inclusiveness, so that education-based sports programs more clearly support public health goals. As part of this assessment, states should reconsider the role of football in public schools. The incidence of head injury and its long-term effects, as well as the high costs for a sport offered primarily for boys, should not be ignored. Sports like flag football and others (such as those highlighted in the State of Play: Baltimore report) offer safer, cost-effective, accessible sport experiences that can get more children in to the game. Policymakers therefore would do well to look at more targeted, positive change rather than sweeping, blanket bans.
At the grassroots level, the issue of concussions in youth sports is raising important questions that will and should inform our very definitions of sport and the role of sport in schools. At their core, sports are made-up games, and we as a society have an obligation to structure them — especially those that are supported by schools and taxpayer dollars — to serve the greater good without risking severe long-term injury for youth.
Dionne Koller is director of the Center for Sport and the Law at the University of Baltimore. She serves on the advisory group for Project Play: Baltimore, a multiyear initiative by the Aspen Institute designed to help city stakeholders grow the quantity and quality of sport options available to local Baltimore youth. It is the first model community initiative organized by the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. Supported by Under Armour, Project Play: Baltimore is a bold experiment designed to serve and inspire Baltimore communities.
Watch discussion on football’s future: What if flag football – not tackle – was the standard way of playing football until high school?