- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 11, 2018

Maryland is one of four states considering legislation that would ban tackle football in public schools and parks for children and restrict contact in other sports for young athletes.

A bill filed last week in the Maryland General Assembly would eliminate for children younger than 14 tackling in football, body-checking in lacrosse and hockey and “headers” in soccer — the technique in which players use their heads to pass or shoot.

Critics say the legislation amounts to “nanny state” overreach, while proponents contend that the government needs to step in to protect children.

The bill, introduced by Delegate Terri L. Hill, a Democrat from the Baltimore suburb of Columbia, would require the rule changes for all youth soccer, lacrosse, hockey and football played on public land or in organizations that use public funds.

“The question becomes: Do you really want us to err on the side of caution, or on the side of favoring a tradition?” Mrs. Hill told The Washington Times, adding that players in bygone eras played with leather helmets — or with no headgear at all.

Legislatures in New York, Illinois and California — all Democrat-controlled — are looking at similar bills this year.

Mrs. Hill argued that youth football organizations are more likely than high schools to rely on volunteers and “well-intentioned people who just don’t have the background to always know the best way to train,” and that helmets do not protect children from all types of head injuries.

“In some cases, the neck muscles aren’t developed well enough in young children that they’re almost like bobblehead dolls [within their helmets],” said Mrs. Hill, who was a plastic surgeon before running for office. “So the helmet may protect them from a fracture, but it doesn’t protect them from the brain flopping back and forth inside the skull.”

The legislation was written in part by former University of Maryland and NFL player Madieu Williams, who finished his nine-year NFL career with a season on the Washington Redskins roster.

Before the legislative session began, Mrs. Hill wanted to write a football safety bill and sought input from Mr. Williams, who is working as an intern in her office.

Mr. Williams did not play tackle football until high school and said he and his wife plan to keep their 4-year-old son from tackling until high school as well.

“One of the first things I always communicate to our constituents is to let them know: This bill is not to tell you not to play football,” Mr. Williams said. “What this bill is saying is to delay tackling in football.”

The legislation, HB 1210, was introduced to the House Ways and Means Committee for first reading Thursday. If it becomes law, it will take effect June 1, before the next football season.

Some parents, coaches and youth sports officials disagree with Mrs. Hill. More than 3,500 people have signed a Change.org petition to block the legislation.

Mrs. Hill and Mr. Williams emphasize that the proposal is not an “anti-football” bill and children can still learn the game at a young age through flag football, seven-on-seven or two-hand touch.

“I encourage [people] to talk to college recruiters and high school recruiters and talk about how the skills of tackling can be taught at a later age, at a teenage age, and be taught well enough for people to still have an opportunity to get scholarships to play in college and even go on to the pros,” Mrs. Hill said.

HB 1210 was the second of two bills Mrs. Hill filed concerning safety in youth sports. The first would require a health care provider or other individual who has completed “concussion risk and management training” to be on the sidelines of every youth practice and game.

Sen. William C. Smith Jr., Montgomery County Democrat, filed a companion bill to Mrs. Hill’s concussion care bill in the Maryland Senate, but he told The Washington Times he does not support the tackle ban bill in its current form.

Language in HB 1210 defines a “physical sport” as tackle football, soccer that includes heading, hockey and lacrosse that include checking and “any other sport in which physical activity results in a high risk of head injury.” That can be interpreted to mean every sport that kids play, Mr. Smith said.

Mrs. Hill is considering focusing that passage further. She said the bill has a long way to go through the process to garner more support.

“As I hear from people that maybe we’ve missed something or we don’t understand something about a certain sport or I’ve got something wrong, then I’m definitely open to amending the bill to try to get it right,” she said. “There’s no point in having bad legislation.”

Even good legislation could be unpopular.

Dion Golatt, a Prince George’s County resident, served as a youth football coach for 17 years and a commissioner of the Metropolitan Washington American Youth Football League for 10 before recently stepping down. He said the idea is government overreach.

“I think going straight to banning something without having any conversations with the leagues that are in the state, the leaders of those leagues … I haven’t seen where that’s been done,” Mr. Golatt said. “I was commissioner of the league for the last 10 years. I never was contacted by any congressman, state senator or anything to talk about the issues or concerns. To go from zero to 100 so fast definitely doesn’t seem like the right way to go about it.”

Mr. Golatt, whose son plays quarterback at Morgan State in Baltimore, said his league instituted USA Football’s “Heads Up Football” training program that teaches children proper tackling, and their players experienced “very minimal head injuries” after that.

Still, Mr. Golatt noticed a decline in participation in the Metro AYF league while he was its commissioner, with the game’s safety a concern to some parents. Similarly, participation in youth football in Anne Arundel County decreased by about 33 percent from 2011 to 2016.

The Metro AYF league, though mostly comprising Maryland clubs, includes a few teams based in Washington that would not be subject to Maryland’s law. Mr. Golatt pointed out that those teams would be limited in whom they could play against as a result.

That may become an unintended consequence, but the bill’s crafters want to put children’s well-being above all.

“There’s a lot of science that is coming out, a lot of studies, and I think for the most part regarding traumatic brain injuries, we need to not ignore what those scientists are telling us and take some proactive steps to protect our young children,” he said.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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