By: Lauren Hirota
We’ve all seen the movie Concussion, and if you haven’t—you should. It tells the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of the degenerative brain disorder Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (“CTE”) in NFL players. With the success of the movie—coupled with countless stories of ex-NFL, high school, and youth football player’s suicides flooding the news—it’s no wonder why participation in youth programs has dropped almost 20% since 2009. Now more than ever parents are asking: are our kids safe? Are Friday night lights worth the long-term effects of CTE? Is there anything can we do? While states across the nation are beginning to look for solutions, California passed AB 1.
Also known as the California Youth Football Act, AB 1 compels various safety regulations for youth tackle football programs and mirrors those enacted in 2014 by AB 2127 for high school and middle school football programs. AB 1 limits full-contact work to thirty minutes per practice, with no more than two full-contact practices per week. The bill further prohibits all contact training during the off-season and requires coaches to stay up to date on head injury training and proper tackling and blocking techniques.
After numerous legislative brawls over youth football’s viability, AB 1 is California’s “Hail Mary” attempt at appeasing opponents of youth football while still keeping the sport afloat. Despite California’s attempt to toe the sideline, AB 1 fails to address the safety issues inherent to the sport and sets a new precedent by regulating the “private” sports industry.
While AB 1’s safety goals are admirable, the bill “bandwagons” the already widely accepted practices of youth programs, such as Pop Warner, across the country. Critics of AB 1 argue that sports leagues already effectively regulate themselves without the codification of weaker regulations by the government. Prior to the enactment of AB 1, Pop Warner—the nation’s largest youth football league—eliminated kickoffs for its three youngest divisions and implemented the “Heads Up Football” program to educate the league’s coaches on concussion management. Proponents of AB 1 say the bill effectively unifies the few straggling programs across the state that have yet to follow the outlined measures.
Despite AB 1’s lack of ingenuity, the bill breaks precedent by regulating the private sports industry. Historically, federal and state governments have allowed sports leagues to operate with vast freedom and discretion. It wasn’t until significant safety concerns, such as CTE, made headlines that governments began to take notice. While various previous regulations have addressed concussion management protocols off the field, AB 1 breaks ground by regulating the actual substance of the game—limiting a coach’s ability to run full-contact practices.
Despite its potentially tepid impact, AB 1 signifies the beginning of a long battle for youth football’s survival. With courts and legislatures more willing to hold football leagues accountable for failing to protect its players, the future of football hangs in the balance. AB 1 begins an important dialogue on the balances between private sports regulations and public welfare.
You can subscribe to the In Session podcast and listen to my broader conversation about AB 1 and related legislation with Thomas Gerhart on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher Radio, Spotify, or on your favorite podcast app.