Tackle football could become a thing of the past for thousands of Massachusetts elementary and middle school athletes, as state lawmakers consider banning the full-contact sport for young players.
Under a bipartisan bill supported by 17 House members, schools and leagues would be fined $2,000 for allowing children in grade seven and below to play organized tackle football, which research suggests is more harmful to young players than previously thought.
"We're not banning football. Touch football, flag football, great. Up through the seventh grade, go to it," said Rep. Paul Schmid (D-Westport), one of the lead sponsors of the bill. "What we're saying is, for seventh grade and under, no tackle football."
Schmid said the state government needs to step in because there is no single statewide authority that governs football like there are for youth soccer or hockey, sports that have taken steps to eliminate parts of the game that most often lead to head injuries.
"There's a lot of science ... that says we got to be really careful with young heads," Schmid said.
Coaches and league officials like Hanson Youth Football President Damon Stanton say there's no perfect solution to the problem of young players experiencing concussions, but that the sport has already changed in recent years to limit head injuries and teach players safer ways to tackle.
"If they eliminated [tackle football], it would be a tough pill to swallow for a lot of kids, because there are a lot of kids who just genuinely love the sport," Stanton said.
Gov. Charlie Baker has not weighed in on banning tackle football, but several of the bill's Republican co-sponsors are key legislative allies, including House Minority Leader Brad Jones.
"The data was just so compelling ... I think people need to continue to have this conversation and become more aware of it," Jones told WGBH News this week.
That data came from Concussion Legacy Foundation Co-Founder Chris Nowinski, a former college player and professional wrestler who has made it his mission to make sports safer. Nowinski says research shows that brain development in kids between ages 8 and 13 is vulnerable to the kinds of impacts that go along with tackle football.
"There's evidence out of the Boston University CTE Center that football players who started before age 12 were worse off long-term, with higher rates of depression, higher rates of anxiety, higher rates of memory issues than those who started at 12 or later," Nowinski said.
New York, California, Maryland, Illinois and New Jersey are considering similar bills, but no state has yet passed a ban into law. The sponsors of the Massachusetts bill agree that this is only the beginning of a debate on whether to ban tackling and at what age.