People who organize and coach youth tackle football will have a new law to comply with in January 2021, to restrict full-contact practice to no more than 30 minutes per day, two days a week, to reduce brain injuries.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill AB1, also known as the California Youth Football Act, authored by Assemblymember Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove. The bill also bans full-contact practices for youth football teams during the offseason.
“The new law applies to ages 13 and below,” Daniel Washington, spokesman for and the legislative aide on AB1, said in a phone interview Thursday. “This new law does not apply to high school and middle school football programs.”
State law already limits full-contact practices for high school and middle school football teams to no more than 90 minutes per day, no more than two days a week.
Mike Ziehlke is former commissioner for Angels-Murphys-Arnold youth football, former director for the AMA boosters club, and former league vice-president for the Mother Lode Youth Athletic Conference, now known as the Motherlode Valley Football League. He said he’s been outspoken for decades about the need to protect younger football players, especially those under 10.
“I’m not surprised,” Ziehlke said Thursday about the new law. “I’ve been involved with Pop Warner programs back into the 1980s. I’ve watched how this has changed over the years. Unfortunately the people who run the programs have decided to go younger and younger and younger. AMA never allowed Mighty Mites. They’re down to 6 years old. AMA, we went down to 9 years old, but I was fighting against that. Little kids should not be playing tackle football. They don’t even understand it. Some people don’t want their kids playing tackle football at that young age and I don’t blame them.”
Concussions are real, Ziehlke said. He tried to tell people years ago and instead of taking steps they wanted to go younger and younger.
In April 2018 a study by the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System and Boston University's School of Medicine found athletes who started playing tackle football before age 12 displayed symptoms related to chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with histories of repetitive brain trauma -- earlier than other players.
Anthony Harner, president of Tuolumne Bears Youth Football and one of the coaches, said they’re already doing limited full-contact practices.
“This is something we invented years ago,” Harner said Thursday in a phone interview. “There’s no point in them beating each other up four days a week. It's a long season. The season starts the last week of July and ends the first week of November.”
Ryan Wynne, who’s been active with Tuolumne Bears Youth Football and served as president for more than five years, sat in a lawn chair in shade above the Summerville High School baseball diamond Thursday afternoon, watching his son and about 90 other Tuolumne Bears, ages 6 years to 14 years old, practicing in helmets and pads in different age groups.
“AB1, it’s awesome and it’s going to help save youth tackle football,” Wynne said. “The way it’s been going, with concussions and CTE in the NFL, there ended up being a lot of anti-football people, and pro-kids people, who, after all, just want to protect the kids. There was a lot of uproar.”
Wynne talked about efforts to outright ban youth football for athletes under age 12, and proposed legislation brought forward by Assembly members Kevin McCarty and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher.
Before the new law signed this week by Newsom, there were no rules or regulations in place protecting youth football players, Wynne said. Under-14 football is what people were attacking, he said. There was concern for youth safety but it was going too far. Wynne said he’s coached football 20 years and some of his former players were freaking out, concerned that legislators would go too far and outlaw youth football altogether.
“This is good,” Wynne said of AB1. “This is the state setting a standard to protect youth football for future generations.”
For coaches and players, full-contact means game-speed hits, blocks and tackles, Wynne said. Six-year-olds in football helmets and shoulder pads don’t go full-speed in practice, he said. Coaches are trying to teach 6-year-olds basic fundamentals of football, like getting down in a stance, keeping their heads out of tackles, listening to their coaches, and following directions.
Casey Kester, varsity football coach at Bret Harte High School, said he works with youth football programs and two of his coaches at Bret Harte also coach youth football.
“At the high school level, yes, it’s a good thing to have in place, but any coach who is doing that 30 minutes a couple times a week is essentially beating the players up,” Kester said Thursday in a phone interview.
There are some old-school-style coaches who like to have their players do full-contact Oklahoma drills created by coaching legend Bud Wilkinson, with opposing players lined up head-to-head for one-on-one blocking and tackling, Kester said. Other successful football schools have had minimal full-contact in practice, Kester said, citing St. John’s University under coach John Gagliardi.
“The problem is not so much the time limits, but how you define full-contact and what kind of contact is actually taking place,” Kester said. “We don’t do a whole lot of full-contact practice at Bret Harte. And I understand what they mean by full-contact. But maybe some people and parents do not understand. Also, who’s going to enforce this if it’s state law?”
Kester said there have been a number of serious injuries in Bret Harte High School football practices over the years, and those injuries are part of football. New players and inexperienced players can be prone to injuring themselves until they’ve been taught how to hit, how to take a hit, and how to fall safely, Kester said.
Kester said precautions his program takes include cycling in 8 to 10 new helmets and up to 4 four new sets of shoulder pads each season to replace dated gear.
The California Youth Football Act also requires a medical professional to be present for all games, and requires an independent person to attend all practices with authority to remove players who show signs of an injury.
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.