Proposed legislation in the Maryland General Assembly would prohibit children from playing tackle football on public fields until they reach high school, a move one of its sponsors says would improve public health.
The measure would prohibit football and other contact sports for elementary and middle-school kids if they are played on public fields or facilities maintained with public funds.
“This is about a vulnerable population and developing brains,” Del. Terri Hill, a physician and Howard County Democrat, said Tuesday. “It’s a public health issue.”
Hill said younger children can’t always recognize or report the symptoms of head injuries and that research shows it’s not just concussions that cause long-term damage. She said the accumulated damage from lesser hits – “sub-concussive” ones – also can cause damage later in life.
“Little kids don’t know what to look for,” Hill said.
The legislation, filed in the Senate by Sen. William C. Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat, adds Maryland to a growing list of states debating measures seeking to safeguard youths from football risks as research into head trauma injuries from the sport grows. A number of professional players have been posthumously diagnosed with a degenerative disease following repeated blows to the head.
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 broad changes such as fewer players and smaller fields.
It’s uncertain what sort of reception Smith’s and Hill’s legislation will receive in the General Assembly and around the state.
Hill and others are concerned not just about tackle football. Hill and Smith’s legislation would also restrict headers in soccer and checking in lacrosse and hockey for the same age groups. Hill’s legislation is expected to be introduced this week in the House.
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 — and those who are 11 and 12 must limit heading in practice.
Football, the nation’s most popular spectator sport, generates the most debate.
After being criticized for not dealing with concussions for years, the NFL now is tightening rules to minimize such injuries and funding research into new technologies. It says it is working at grassroots levels to make the game safer for kids.
Smith, the state senator, said his bill is not meant to undermine football.
“I assure you that football will still be played elsewhere, but it’s a recognition from the state and the counties that we don’t want to facilitate an activity that we know is detrimental to the development of children,” Smith said.
“I love football. I watched through this season and last season, and even through all of the other tumult of the NFL. I think football’s here to stay, but if we can do small things to ensure that people are fully prepared to engage in football, which is inherently a dangerous sport, I think that’s a worthy cause,” Smith said.
Former University of Maryland football and NFL player Madieu Williams is working with Smith and Hill on the legislation.
Hill “came to me and said, ‘What are your thoughts on this?’ ” said Williams, now a University of Baltimore law student who is interning in Hill’s office.
“I had to look at it not only as a former football player but as a parent. Knowing the research coming out on traumatic brain injuries forced me to look at it from a different perspective,” Williams said.
His son is 4, and Williams said: “Our goal right now is not to allow him to play until high school.”
Hill, a member of the House since 2015, is a surgeon. Smith, a former delegate who also has been in the Assembly since 2015, is a lawyer.
They say that by the time students reach high school, their neck muscles have developed more and their brains have developed enough to understand how to safely play full-contact sports.
The bill would not ban full-contact sports in private leagues, but such games would have to be played on private property. Private leagues that permit tackling, heading or checking before the high school level would not qualify to rent public facilities, the lawmakers said.
Two years ago, the state legislature killed a less far-reaching bill that would have proposed suspending coaches who sent young players with head injuries into a game. But Del. Dereck Davis, a Democratic leader in the House of Delegates, said Tuesday that he thinks a full-contact ban for young players makes sense.
“It’s probably a good idea,” Davis said. “With all those hits, you don’t want to get brains scrambled at a young age.”
Donald Davis, head football coach at Calvert Hall high school in Towson, said, “I’m not in a position to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Davis travels around the country conducting football safety and improvement clinics with USA Football, a national governing body for the sport that receives NFL funding.
“It’s a collision sport, make no mistake about it,” Davis said. “What I can tell you is I think the game right now is safer than it’s ever been. The education at every level is better than it’s ever been.”
But Biff Poggi, head football coach at St. Frances Academy, said a prohibition on younger players’ contact is “a great idea because little league football is out of control now. These kids are coming to us in high school with serious injuries you don’t see in the game until much later, like torn labrums and stress fractures in backs.”
Matt Shagogue, the River Hill boys soccer coach for 12 years, said players’ safety and long-term health “are paramount.”
But Shagogue said restrictions on heading pose complex issues.
“Say you get a 14-year-old ninth-grader [who] comes in to play soccer, and this is the first time he’s ever headed the ball,” the coach said. “That’s a big part of the game and, honestly, you can look at it that it could be more dangerous or detrimental to the kid if it’s the first time he encountered it. I wish there was a clear answer, but it doesn’t seem like there is.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Katherine Dunn and Glenn Graham contributed to this article.