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Orange County Register (California)


Southern California youth football coaches are teaming up to battle what they say is a threat to their sport: a state bill that would ban tackling until players are in high school.

The Safe Youth Football Act, which California legislators are expected to take up this spring, aims to protect kids from concussions and brain injuries by setting a minimum age for organized tackle football programs.

Several members of the Southern California Football Coaches Association, including Temecula Valley High School's Bert Esposito and Scott Morrison of Corona's Santiago High, announced the group's opposition to the bill Saturday during a coaches' conference at the Hilton Orange County in Costa Mesa.

"Tackle football is safer than ever," with improved equipment,

education for coaches and safety protocols, Esposito said.

"(The bill) is something that would just really change our game in a way that I don't know that we would ever recover from."

Some research — including a Boston University study published in January — has linked repeated head trauma to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative disease that can result in symptoms such as memory loss, impaired judgment, depression and dementia.

Some former NFL players have come out in support of no tackling — only flag or touch football — for kids under 14. Former football mom Kimberly Archie, whose son was diagnosed with CTE after his 2014 death in a motorcycle crash, is supporting the California bill banning youth tackle football.

"My son played from 7 to 15. He only played one year of high school, so 90 percent of the hits he took came from Pop Warner football," Archie said in a phone interview. Archie and another bereaved mother are suing the Pop Warner organization.

"I don't care how you tackle, I don't care what helmet (you wear) — a child's anatomy is not developed enough to sustain 200 hits a year" without damage to the brain and joints, Archie said.

Coaches at Saturday's conference acknowledged the sport can be tough, but they disagreed with the conclusion that tackling should be banned.

They said there's no consensus among medical professionals and that some research refutes a link between football and violence, suicide and other mental health issues. They also said other sports such as hockey, boxing and rugby could cause the same kind of injuries as football.

"To demonize just this sport is unfair, it's illogical, and frankly it's downright un-American," said Mike Wagner, executive commissioner of Pop Warner's Southern California conference.

One young athlete at the press conference, 12-year-old Angel Smith of the Simi Valley Vikings, said that after getting blindsided in his last game, "I was on the ground for a couple of minutes. It hurt."

But Smith said he's not worried about getting injured in the future and hopes to play football through high school.

Several coaches said they take player safety seriously, and they hope to meet with Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, one of the youth football bill's two sponsors.

The sport can teach kids leadership, teamwork, achievement and a host of other skills, Corona Santiago's Morrison said, adding that football "provides an experience that cannot be matched in any other youth activity."

Archie said her son learned those skills from football too, "But what good did it do him with his brain damage? America loves sports; we need to love kids just as much."

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February 25, 2018


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