Editors note: This is the first of a two-part series related to the proposed legislation to ban tackle football for kids under the age of 12 in California.
In January, Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher stood on the floor of the California State Assembly to present Assembly Joint Resolution 156.
The resolution was largely ceremonial; her timing, just before the Super Bowl, was deliberate. It declared January 30th as “CTE Awareness Day” and recognized those who suffered from the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which, since its discovery in the brains of NFL players, continues to fuel unease over football and its future.
In the gallery sat two California mothers whose young sons suffered from CTE. Neither played football past high school. Both died before 26. “Kimberly Archie lost her son, Paul, to CTE, despite only playing football from age 7 to age 15,” Gonzalez-Fletcher, a Democrat, told the Assembly. “Jo Cornell also lost her son, Tyler, to CTE, and he only played youth and high school football.” Together, the mothers, co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Pop Warner, had pushed hardest for this resolution. They hoped it would be a precursor to something more.
Weeks later, this notion of youth football begetting brain damage would be the focus of a controversial — and ultimately failed — bill dividing the state over the games safety and the states role in protecting children. But before the outrage and the mudslinging and the “Save Youth Football” rallies, Gonzalez-Fletchers resolution passes unanimously, with 69 co-authors.
One of them, Kevin McCarty, sat two tables away, considering his own growing concerns with youth football. Recent research from Boston University unnerved him. One study found those who played tackle football before age-12 were far more prone to depression and cognitive and behavioral problems. Another detailed the strongest link yet that repetitive, subconcussive hits, not just concussions, could cause CTE.
The evidence, McCarty felt, was “crystal clear”. “I couldnt walk away from that,” he said.
So, on Feb. 8, McCarty and Gonzalez-Fletcher sent out a joint press release, announcing their plans for the “Safe Youth Football Act”.
“This bill, on and after January 1, 2020, would prohibit any person who is not at least 12 years of age from playing tackle football with a youth sports organization, as specified,” it read.
It was a bold step — and also a dicey political proposition. But legislators, McCarty wrote, had “an obligation to protect children from dangerous, long-term injuries,” and in New York, Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey, state lawmakers agreed. In a span of less than two months, all four states introduced similar bills proposing a minimum age for tackle football.
In each, the backlash was swift and unyielding. Coaches and parents flooded phone lines, email boxes and talk radio, condemning the bills and questioning the science behind them. Within weeks, three of five bills were dead or left in legislative purgatory, crushed under the weight of youth footballs influence.
In California, as youth leaders mobilized against it and support of Archie, Cornell and other grieving mothers dwindled amid disagreement over its message, the “Safe Youth Football Act” would meet the same fate. It was pulled by its author on Thursday, four days before it was scheduled to be heard in committee.
But as McCarty and Gonzalez-Fletcher vow to continue their pursuit of youth football reform, the nearly three months from their bills release to its untimely failure offer a glimpse into the bitter machinations of an escalating fight over youth football, and the challenge facing those who seek to reform it.
Jason Ingman stood at the top of the Capitol steps in Sacramento, with his fist raised. Behind him, a banner bearing Californias flag read “#SAVEYOUTHFOOTBALL” and “A PARENTS CHOICE TO CHOOSE”.
“Let them play!” Ingman yelled. A crowd of more than 100 gathered at the steps roared back in unison. Many were kids dressed in football jerseys. “Theyre taking away football,” Ingman continued. “Think about that. Foot. Ball.”
That first morning of the bills release, Ingman sprung into action, starting a petition against it. A youth coach in Natomas, near Sacramento, he accepted football carried inherent risk of injury. Still, his son, Kristian, was tackling stuffed animals at 18 months. By 5, when first eligible, Ingman signed him up for tackle. It was a parents right, he believed, to consider the risks. The research suggesting otherwise, he thought, was “at best, unsubstantiated, and at worst, an outright lie”.
Within a few days, his petition collected over 30,000 signatures. (There are more than 45,000 collected before the bill was pulled.) In a whirlwind of angry emails and social media messages, an otherwise disconnected community of youth football interests mobilized before the bill even published.
“When you talk about taking football away, those are fighting words for a lot of people,” says Chris Fore, a local coach and consultant who helped connect the disparate groups.
During the short life of AB 2108, this hysteria manifested most prominently on the discussion board of the “Save Youth Football – California” Facebook group, which served as ground zero for opposition to the bill. For months, dozens of new posts were added every day, as parents and coaches decried Californias “nanny state” government and offered impassioned odes to youth footballs benefits, addressed passive aggressively to the bills co-authors.
“What Ive learned is both of these representatives dont even know the sport,” says Steve Famiano, vice president of SoCal Elite Youth Football and the creator of the Facebook group. “Theyre just listening to advocates who are basically saying, OK, ban, ban, ban, ban, ban.”
Famiano lives in Apple Valley, where hes been involved with youth football since 2002. “Before anybody knew about CTE,” he says. A week before the rally, he drove south to San Diego, where, after weeks of calls and emails, Gonzalez-Fletcher agreed to sit down with his group.
The meeting was scheduled for just 20 minutes, but lasted twice as long, as they laid out their case for how youth football was different now, how coaches are more informed than ever, how practice limits — two contact practices per week — and new, stricter concussion protocols — requiring 24 hours before a player returns — make the game safer than ever before. They even outlined a list of new ideas which could make it safer still, like a state-run youth sports safety commission. They asked for a compromise.
But their discussion only outlined how divided the two sides were. “Obviously, they have views about the way this will go,” Gonzalez-Fletcher said. There would be no meeting in the middle.
“You have some folks who believe government doesnt play a role,” she continued. ”I respectfully disagree with that. We play a role in a lot of regulation and activities that involve children in particular.”
Opponents argued this was the state overstepping its bounds; ideologically, its a pertinent question to ask. But when pressed, McCarty was clear he believes its “not an overreach, when theres research and science behind it.”
In this regard, the bills co-authors were deliberate in leaving little room for scientific doubt. But in this debate, there are questions from both sides about burden of proof.
Theres no dispute collisions cause injury, but in the absence of extensive, long-term data specific to youth football, some medical professionals contend more research is needed. Twenty-six neuroscientists penned a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial to make this case, while accusing Boston University of ascertainment bias in its research.
But how much evidence is enough to calculate risk? The threshold is subjective. For some fervent defenders of football, its unclear.
“Has the connection between brain trauma and CTE been proven to the highest level of evidence? The answer is no,” Chris Nowinski admits. As executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, hes had this debate over proof before, with scientists and football zealots alike.
“But,” he continues, “do experts studying CTE believe, based on all the evidence there is today, that head trauma causes CTE? The answer is yes.”
Hearing youth football leaders argue that research, Gonzalez-Fletcher harkened back to the debate over mandatory vaccines. As author of Californias bill, parents against state-mandated vaccinations hounded her over what they perceived as inconclusive science.
“It became clear then,” she says, “that parents who have chosen something for their children, theyll look for the exception to the rule as a justification.”
In Sacramento, Todd Bloomstine, a lobbyist and local youth football leader, took the microphone, intent on challenging that rule.
“They dont want you to know the whole story,” he told the crowd.
He read from a Boston University study that McCarty used to justify the bill, which notes that findings “should not be used to inform safety and/or policy decisions in regards to youth football”.
It was a noteworthy caveat. To Bloomstine, it was evidence of what hed already assumed. The bills co-authors, he proclaimed, “were on a crusade to end youth football.”
From the outer rungs of the rally, the mother most often associated with this crusade stood inconspicuously in the crowd, dressed in dark clothes and sunglasses. Over the past few months, Kimberly Archie was reminded how far some parents and coaches would go to defend youth football. As she voiced her support for Californias bill, some even cast doubt on the circumstances of her sons death.
In willingly positioning herself as the most public grieving mother in the debate over football, Archie has been accused, among other things, of politicizing her sons CTE; masterminding a youth flag football organization to upend Pop Warner; and planning the end of “every youth contact sport in America.”
“Everyone thinks Im out to ruin football,” she says, with a laugh.
Her impassioned push for “Flag Under 14” suggests otherwise. But in her “crazy mom crusade,” as she calls it, Archie has indeed become a leading provocateur in the youth football world. She is brash, outspoken and — you might be surprised to find out — staunchly Republican, and in the fight over youth football, Archie envisions herself as a sort of a civil rights activist, protecting kids from brain damage, laying the groundwork to overhaul the game that gave her son CTE. Still, others, even on her own side of the debate, have questioned her role and her motives.
When Paul Bright, Jr. was killed in an motorcycle accident, Archie was already a decade into fighting for safety in sports. It was the cruelest case of irony; her sons erratic behavior before the accident reminded her of past cases shed litigated. Hed played only nine years of football. But when she sent his brain to Boston University, a diagnosis of Stage 1 CTE confirmed her suspicions.
“Im not doing this for my son,” she clarifies. In fact, Archie and her advocacy group, Faces of CTE, continue to argue that an undue focus on CTE has clouded parents judgment. She points to Lakewoods Donnovan Hill, who sued Pop Warner following a spinal injury and died in 2016. When his brain was examined by Boston University, it showed severe brain damage that was previously undiagnosed. Five months later, in Ladera Ranch, 13-year-old James Ransom committed suicide, a year after suffering a traumatic brain injury from a helmet-to-helmet collision. Neither were diagnosed with CTE. Both were forever changed by football.
Even the neuroscientist who, in 2002, first discovered the disease in NFL players believes that America is “too fascinated, if not obsessed with CTE.”
“We should stop making this about CTE,” Bennet Omalu told the Southern California News Group. “The problem is brain damage, and CTE is only one form of advanced brain damage.”
The week of the rally, Archie argued this point in face-to-face meetings with state lawmakers. She came to Sacramento to lobby for Californias bill and help push it through committee. But for months, shed clashed with McCartys office on its message. As the bills first hearing neared, their rift was coming to a head.
The “Safe Youth Football Act” originally set the minimum age for tackle football at 14. But after meeting with high school coaches, who argued players needed a ramp-up before high school, McCarty changed the age to 12. Archie felt the decision was made arbitrarily. “You either do it based on science, or you dont do it all,” she said in March. It was only the beginning of their disagreements.
After the bills release, as both co-authors remained mum on its details, Archie emerged, intended or not, as the public face of the states efforts to ban youth tackle football. She argued passionately for the bill, even sparring in a hostile radio debate with Ingman, who claimed she had a “personal vendetta” against football.
“If Im wrong,” she told him, “Im a safety zealot. If youre wrong, kids get brain damage.”
But after meeting with McCarty and other lawmakers on the committee, Archies feelings on the bill changed dramatically, for reasons — it appears — both ethical and personal. Less than a week before AB 2108 was scheduled to be heard in committee, Archie announced that she and Faces of CTE would renounce support of Californias bill. The bills message and strategy was confusing lawmakers and families, she said. No families of victims were planning to testify when it was pulled a day later, amid a lack of support.
“Its not like we wanted the bill not to pass,” Archie says, “but we cant be involved with a false narrative that does not inform the public, that doesnt inform consumers what the fraud is. Thats wrong.”
When they met, Archie had implored McCarty to rely on sources other than Boston University and Nowinskis Concussion Legacy Foundation, whom she declared were “no better than the tobacco research centers that were funded by tobacco.” On Thursday, after dismissing her support, Archie confronted Nowinski on Twitter about the bills failures.
McCarty responded to her plea, Archie says, by asking her “not to be an expert and just to be a grieving mom.”
McCartys office did not respond to comment about her claim.
“Were taking a timeout,” he said in a statement announcing the bills fate.
But Archies disagreements, however warranted, are representative of a larger messaging problem in a complex debate over youth football. Even those most desperately seeking reform arent unified in their reasoning and research. As youth football leaders cast doubt on the science and parents question who to believe, the narrative espoused by such legislation is vital, if it ever hopes to pass.
With the bill now off the table, Archie has taken up a new crusade. Instead of pursuing legislation, she plans to pressure the state attorney general to prosecute what she claims is the fraudulent sale of football helmets to children.
“No helmets, no tackle football,” she says.
In a statement, McCartys office promised that the bills co-authors would “outline our next steps” in an announcement on Monday.
Its possible the bill could still be saved in some lesser form — perhaps, retooled as regulation for youth football, similar to what Famiano and his group recommended. But after the bitter, failed fight for the Safe Youth Football Act, its likely that Californias efforts to set a strict, minimum age for youth football will be tabled for the time being.
Still, the debate over youth football will continue. In the coming months, other states are sure to consider the same questions about youth footballs safety and the governments role.
In the plight of Californias bill, theres a sense of how confused and uncertain the messaging of youth football reformers remains, here and elsewhere. Omalu compared letting children play tackle football to “child abuse” and called for a ban until 18. The Concussion Legacy Foundation advocates for a ban until 14. The Safe Youth Football Act conceded to 12, after speaking with Sacramento-area coaches.
“Well, what is it?” Famiano asks. “You have totally confused the public on what it is youre trying to accomplish here. It makes no sense at all.”
In California, Famiano and other youth football leaders rejoiced at the bills failure and promised that any future effort would be handled with a unified front.
“The bill is dead,” Ingman proclaimed in a Facebook Live video. “I want to say that again. The bill is dead.”
Still, as research is mounting, doubts about youth tackle football remain. Famiano acknowledges this. He agrees parents should be informed of footballs risks, before making a choice.
As he looks ahead, to the uncertain future of youth football, Famiano wont dispute that tackle football can be dangerous for kids.
“But dangerous to what degree,” he says, “thats up for interpretation.”