Dr. Robert Cantu, Co-Director Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, Boston University, Author: Concussions and Our Kids talks about the “Football bill A4529” and the way kids injure themselves while playing football during a press conference at the Legislative Office Building on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013 in Albany N.Y. The bill would ban tackle football for kids 10 and under and head shots in soccer. (Lori Van Buren / Times Union)
Albany, New York . . . . . . . . . .
A state lawmaker is broadening his proposed ban on organized youth tackle football to include all kids younger than 14, citing what he described as mounting evidence of the vulnerability of children’s brains to even blows that fall short of causing concussions.
The current text of the bill, introduced in February, would have only prohibited tackling among players younger than 11.
But Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, joined at a Thursday news conference by a concussion expert from Boston University, said the risk to young teens’ still-developing brains is too great.
The Bronx Democrat also plans to introduce similar legislation to ban “heading” in organized youth soccer for kids younger than 14.
“Youngsters are particularly vulnerable,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of BU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which examines the degenerative condition linked to head trauma. “We have six youngsters in our brain bank at BU who … have chronic traumatic encephalopathy shown at the high school level. So this is an entity that is already developing in these players.”
Since Benedetto first introduced the legislation, the volume of the debate over of the safety of America’s most popular sport has increased, fueled in part by a $765 million concussion settlement agreed to in August between the National Football League and former players, and last month by a PBS documentary titled “League of Denial.”
The debate has also spread beyond football to sports like pro hockey, which in recent months has come under increasing criticism for sanctioning on-ice fighting.
Cantu, who wrote the book “Concussions and Our Kids,” said the argument that younger, smaller players don’t hit hard enough to cause serious injury isn’t backed up by science — in part because their heads are nearly full-grown but their necks are not yet strong enough to absorb the blows.
The result, he said, is a “bobblehead doll effect” that means “not a very hard blow to a youngster’s head will cause a much greater force to the brain than that same blow would to an adult’s head.”
“And that’s why youngsters who aren’t as big and strong and fast as high school, college and professional players, their brains are actually subjected to similar accelerations … because their necks are so weak, because their brains are so light,” Cantu said.
Several people involved in youth football in the Capital Region, however, said Benedetto’s ban could be “catastrophic” to the sport. And while recognizing the need for greater vigilance, they said increased safety could be achieved through better equipment and coaching.
Drew Giungo, president of Albany Pop Warner, said his organization has only had two reported concussions in the last five years after investing in $150 helmets that are reconditioned annually. Coaches, he added, have focused on teaching players the correct ways to hit and tackle.
“You don’t have to kill each other to teach,” said Giungo, who is also director of football operations at Christian Brothers Academy. “The contact is for the game. But during the week it’s about teaching technique, the skill.”
If it passed, the measure — which at this point seems to have little support from fellow lawmakers, and no sponsor in the state Senate — could gut Pop Warner’s 5-15 age demographic in New York.
Derek Brown, the former Giants tight end who now lives in Clifton Park, disputed Cantu’s contention that kids could be taught to tackle using dummies and then safely transition to live contact once they turn 14. He said the growing body of knowledge about concussions demands that the issue be taken seriously, but banning younger players from the game is not the answer. “We need to get back to the basics, teaching tackling the way it should be taught, teaching hitting the way it should be taught,” he said.
Brown himself didn’t start playing until 9th grade, but his own son — now 12 — started in 4th grade. “If he was a running back, I definitely would have high concerns,” Brown said. “The more I learn, and the more that has come out about (damage from concussions), it is something serious.”
Carol O’Malley, who stood alongside Benedetto and Cantu Thursday, said doctors believe her son, Ryan, is now suffering from the effects of years of collisions that began in youth football when he was seven.
“He was a fearless player, and he wanted to be in every play,” the Bronx woman said of her former quarterback and running back son, now 27. He also played in high school, and began exhibiting uncharacteristic aggression around the time he was getting ready to leave home forSacred Heart University.
A breakdown in 2004 began a six-year cycle of hospital stays, derailing his life until doctors finally began to suspect what was wrong, O’Malley said.
“There’s really nothing you can do when the damage is done to the brain,” she said. “I just hope that this bill is passed and that more children are protected, because I didn’t have that.”
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