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Maryland tackle football bill absorbs early hits

A new bill in the Maryland General Assembly to limit tackle football and headers in soccer for kids in elementary and middle school is absorbing some early hits.

Coaches around the state took to social media and sports talk radio to oppose the legislation filed this week, and a youth football administrator started an online petition that had accumulated more than 2,500 signatures to “stop the bill.” A state senator who explored sponsoring the measure said he had reconsidered because the language seemed overly broad.

Del. Terri Hill, the Howard County Democrat who filed the legislation, said Friday she stood behind it, but was receptive to the swirl of views from both sides.

“I remain open to listening to people’s opinions,” said Hill, a surgeon. “This is going to create debate, and that’s part of the process.”

Hill said she had heard from “people who are fully in support and people who think this bill is totally out of place and unwarranted.”

The measure would prohibit children from playing tackle football and engaging in other contact activities at publicly supported fields or sites until they reach high school. It would also restrict headers in soccer and checking in lacrosse and ice hockey.

“We are looking at the four sports where we have been told there is the highest risk to developing brains due to repetitive head trauma,” Hill said. She called it a “public health issue.”

Under U.S. Soccer Federation guidelines adopted in Maryland in 2016, children under 11 are banned from heading, a dynamic way to score or advance the ball. Those who are 11 and 12 must limit heading in practice.

State Sen. William C. Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat, said Friday he decided against sponsoring a companion version of the bill in the Senate because the language was “overly broad,” potentially encompassing too many activities.

“I’m really glad this issue and topic has been put out there. It’s a public health concern,” said Smith, a lawyer. “We really need to have discussions about youth sports and concussions. I’m happy to let that dialogue play out in the House.”

Similar bills have been introduced in legislatures in New York and Illinois to protect developing brains not only from concussions, but from accumulated damage from lesser hits.

Youth football leagues, responding to declines in participation, have moved to limit contact in practice and emphasize proper tackling techniques. They also have experimented with broader changes, such as playing with fewer players and smaller fields.

But some league administrators say state governments are overreaching by stepping in.

“To actually ban the entire sport is a little bit ridiculous,” said Michael Melvin, chairman of football operations for the Reisterstown Mustangs, a local youth program with eight teams and 200 players from 5 to 14 years old. “The game has never been safer for the youth as far as the equipment we have. All of our coaches are certified by USA Football.”

USA Football, an oversight body that receives funding from the NFL, conducts football safety and improvement programs around the nation.

Melvin started a petition on change.org.

“If this bill is passed, it will have a very negative impact on our youth especially those in the inner city,” the petition reads. “The choice to play youth tackle football should be left up to the parents not the government.”

It had received more than 2,500 online signatures Friday afternoon.

The bill would not affect flag football or touch football. It would not ban full-contact sports in private leagues played on private property. Private leagues that permit tackling, heading or checking before the high school level would not qualify to rent public facilities.

“I think it’s OK to play before you’re 14,” said Patrick Nixon, football coach at Mervo High School. “I just think it’s getting out of control with how much football they’re playing,” even during the offseason.

The bill faces an uncertain reception in the General Assembly.

Hill said Smith’s decision not to sponsor a Senate version was “fine” — she said she would continue to seek support in the House. Her bill had 10 listed sponsors Friday afternoon.

Supporters include former University of Maryland and NFL player Madieu Williams, an intern in Hill’s office who has advised her on the bill.

“There are some people who are friends — who I thought were friends — who weren’t particularly enthused about my involvement with this bill,” said Williams, who is studying law at the University of Baltimore.

“A couple of them said, ’Hey man, I don’t think I can talk to you anymore because I love the game of football.’ I said, ‘I love the game of football, too. I do hear your concerns.’ ”

Williams, 36, who played free safety for four teams in a nine-year NFL career, didn’t join a football team until high school because his parents disapproved. He played baseball.

“I always cringe when I see young children playing tackle football,” he said. “Their brains are still developing. Tackling can be added after 14 when you’re a little bigger and stronger.

“I believe in cross-training — let a child play multiple sports. By trying different sports, it allows you to develop different muscle memories.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Katherine Dunn contributed to this article

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