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Bill to bar tackle football before high school is killed by Maryland House committee

A Maryland House of Delegates committee has killed a bill that would have prohibited tackling in football and heading in soccer by kids in elementary and middle school.

The Ways and Means Committee overwhelmingly rejected the measure, which its sponsor had called a “public health” bill.

“I really did not expect it to pass, but I think it’s a conversation we have to have and I don’t think the conversation is over,” said Del. Terri Hill, the Howard County Democrat who filed the legislation.

“Culturally we love football, I love football,” said Hill, a surgeon. “It’s difficult to appreciate that something we really enjoy — with clear benefits to our kids — may be hurting them without our knowledge.”

The committee’s unfavorable report was filed this week. The committee voted after a hearing Friday in which 31 witnesses testified — 25 of them against the measure. It sought to bar tackling and heading until players reached high school age.

Nineteen committee members voted to kill the measure; three did not vote.

Youth coaches around the state took to social media and sports talk radio to oppose the legislation, which covered organized school programs and youth leagues. A youth football administrator started an online petition that accumulated more than 7,000 signatures to “stop the bill.”

“It shouldn’t have passed,” said the coach, Michael Melvin, vice president of the Reisterstown Mustangs youth program . “But there are some things we can do. We need to come down on the number of practices with full pads. We’re playing a little too much football,” Melvin said Monday.

At the hearing, some committee members proposed better training of coaches, but said prohibition was too extreme.

Hill told the committee that the bill, which she has reworked since it was first proposed, addressed youth and football and soccer programs “in school and out, public and private.”

She said her focus was accumulated damage from lesser hits – “sub-concussive” ones – on developing brains that can cause damage later in life.

Youth football leagues, responding to declines in participation, have moved to limit contact in practice and emphasize proper tackling techniques. Under U.S. Soccer Federation guidelines adopted in Maryland in 2016, children under 11 are banned from heading and those who are 11 and 12 must limit heading in practice.

Hill said she didn’t know if she would introduce the measure in future legislative sessions.

“I don’t know what the future holds,” she said. “I’m willing to have a conversation: where can we make things safe.”

jebarker@baltsun.com

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