Choosing Brains over Brawn: School Districts Replace Tackle Football Program with Flag Football

football-1291426_1920.jpgLast week, in a surprising but welcome move, Naperville’s School District 203 announced that beginning next year, the middle school tackle football program will be replaced with flag football. Naperville’s School District 204 made a similar decision earlier in April. The announcements came after several seasons of decreasing participation in the sport and growing parental concern about their children’s safety, particularly with regard to concussions.

The personal injury lawyers at The Collins Law Firm applaud this decision. For a while now, we have been following the discussions surrounding football and the emerging studies on the long-term health effects of sustaining concussions, and we feel that it is time to take action to protect children.

Moved by a similar concern for children’s safety, Illinois state representative Carol Sente proposed the Dave Duerson Act in January of this year. Under her bill, children under 12 would be barred from playing tackle football. The bill is named for former Bears standout, Dave Duerson, who was diagnosed before his death with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma.

Dave Duerson is not the only one. In a recent study, researchers from Boston University found that 87% of the brains donated by families of deceased football players showed signs of CTE. The players had played the game at all levels, including some who played only high school, some who played in college, and others who played in the pros. Not surprisingly, 99% of the former NFL players had signs of CTE, with 86% of those showing severe pathology. What is more disturbing is that the majority (56%) of college players even showed signs of severe CTE. Furthermore, the study showed that the longer you played, the greater the risk of having CTE. All of this should lead to the reasonable conclusion that the longer you postpone tackling, the better for the players’ brains.

CTE is a devastating disease that causes dementia, with sufferers exhibiting a range of symptoms including rage, confusion, paranoia, aggression, debilitating depression, severe sleep disturbances, and suicidal thoughts. In essence, CTE robs people of their natural personalities, affecting not only the players but also their families in the process.

Some sectors in Illinois, including coaches and the media, have come out opposed to the Dave Duerson Act, saying that tackling is not a huge issue for young players and that parents, not government, should be making this decision for their children. However, that is a ridiculous argument. Youth soccer bans heading before age 11, and youth hockey restricts body checking for players under 13. Moreover, Illinois laws mandate helmets while riding a bike, and seatbelts and car seats in the car. There are all sorts of safety decisions that are not left up to parents. Why should youth football be any different?

The research is very clear: All concussions, especially when they happen to children or teens, should be taken seriously. Multiple concussions even more so. Schools and sports teams should have rigorously followed concussion protocols for all sports. In addition, parents should be made aware of any injuries their children sustain and see an attorney if they feel their child has suffered a concussion because of negligence or failure to follow proper safety precautions.

The Illinois bill banning tackling for young football players passed out of committee in March and is now in the House for debate. We urge the legislators to put the health of Illinois’ children first and pass the Dave Duerson Act. Until they do, we hope more school districts will follow Naperville’s example and save the next generation of young athletes from a terrible disease.

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