Tackle football for kids under 12 would be banned by law proposed in Illinois; some experts, coaches question approach

Chicago Tribune

Illinois would ban tackle football for children younger than 12 under a proposed state law unveiled Thursday.

At a Chicago news conference, state Rep. Carol Sente, a Vernon Hills Democrat, introduced the Dave Duerson Act, named for the former Bears player who took his life in 2011 at age 50.

After his death, Duerson was found to have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to repeated head trauma.

Many other ex-NFL players have suffered a similar fate. Given such tragedies, and the risks Sente contended are magnified for those who play tackle football under age 12, a legislative fix is needed, she said.

“As the science and the data move forward and progress, so must we, and we now turn our attention to CTE,” Sente said. “Children as young as 5 are playing tackle football. … They are taking hits in practice and at games, with forces that are similar to what college players are taking.”

Some experts, though, took issue with Sente’s bill, saying no evidence demonstrates that younger football players are at greater risk for the disease.

“There’s no scientific consensus that 12 or 11 is a threshold age below which (tackle football) becomes more dangerous,” said Dr. Julian Bailes of the NorthShore University HealthSystem Neurological Institute, a CTE researcher who advises the Pop Warner youth football organization.

Jerry Miller of Bill George Youth Football, a suburban league of 3,500 players, about 1,000 of whom are under 12, said the game already has undergone numerous changes that have made it safer.

“The problem is that when all this happened, football was played as a gladiator sport,” he said. “Football has toned down so much. Our league hardly hits.”

Chris Nowinski of the Concussion Legacy Foundation acknowledged that studies have not explicitly shown an elevated risk of CTE in players who began before they were 12, though some have found a greater risk of neurological impairment.

But he added that research has shown a correlation between the duration of a player’s career and the probability of getting the disease.

“The more years you play, the greater the risk of CTE,” he said. “The only way to (shorten) the years of tackle football is to prevent it at the beginning.”

The news conference featured testimonials from several people whose loved ones struggled with diagnosed or presumptive CTE.

“I am the wife of a profoundly sick and damaged former NFL football player,” said Liz Nicholson-Sullivan, wife of former Cleveland Browns lineman Gerry Sullivan. “And I am not alone. My husband Gerry has a life of football, not only under his belt, but also unfortunately in his brain.”

Sullivan played football for 22 years, his wife said, starting in Pop Warner at the age of 8. The eventual onset and severity of what Nicholson-Sullivan suspects to be CTE might have been delayed or diminished had he been precluded from playing tackle football so young, she said.

Before her husband’s diagnosis of dementia at age 52, Nicholson-Sullivan said, he began showing symptoms that included “unmitigated” rage, confusion, paranoia, aggression, debilitating depression, severe sleep disturbances and suicidal thoughts, “which is very common among folks that have (CTE),” she said.

This “volcanic” behavior is foisted on wives and children, sometimes manifesting in domestic violence, Nicholson-Sullivan said.

“There’s a whole community of us that are suffering from this — not only the men but also the wives and the family members,” she said.

Tregg Duerson, who witnessed his father’s “strange behavior” firsthand, said research on CTE helped his family better understand “the times when (his father) was ashamed by his forgetfulness and confusion, and the times when he was overwhelmed by anger and depression.”

Research on the neurological consequences of football-related head trauma in children is less certain.

One study Sente mentioned found measurable changes in the brains of 8- to 13-year-old players after a season on the gridiron. But the study’s author, Dr. Christopher Whitlow of the Wake Forest School of Medicine, said they didn’t lead to noticeable behavioral changes (possible cognitive changes have yet to be analyzed). And it’s not clear if the brain changes were temporary, he said.

“I believe there are always risks associated with playing any sport, including football, but there are also a lot of health benefits,” he said. “At this point, based upon the findings of our one relatively small study, we cannot conclude that there is a risk that warrants restricting play.”

Geoff Meyer of the Chicagoland Youth Football League, an organization with 8,600 players, most of them under 12, said the vast majority leave the sport before reaching the high school varsity.

He said he saw no evidence that CTE should be a worry for such children and vowed to oppose Sente’s bill even though he has worked with her to reduce head injuries at the high school level.

“(The ban) would hurt the sport, and watch out for those unintended consequences,” he said. “You think our young children now have difficulties in life? Let’s put more of them on the street with nothing to do.”

Sente said that even if the research on CTE risks for young football players isn’t definitive, the trend is clear enough to demand action.

Youth soccer bans heading for children under 11 and youth hockey restricts body checking for players younger than 13, she said, so why shouldn’t football impose a similar threshold?

“In public safety, sometimes with issues of how much government should get involved, some people will take the side that you have to prove this 100 percent before you stop,” she said. “My feeling is these are children’s lives. … There are important changes that have happened, but I do not think the changes are enough.”

jkeilman@chicagotribune.com

eolumhense@chicagotribune.com

Youth football participation declines as worries mount about concussions, CTE »

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