Should Tackle Football be Banned for Players Under 14 Years of Age?

Chris Borland, former San Francisco 49ers linebacker, is one of the biggest advocates for football concussion protocol related initiatives. He recently traveled to Washington, D.C. to join a panel discussion on youth football and whether or not tackle football should be allowed before the age of 14. 

The panel was part of program hosted by The Aspen Institute and features former players, coaches, concussion research specialists and even parents of football players. Although the obvious ‘don’t hit a 6-year old in the head’ is not necessary to state out loud, the program is not against children under the age of 14 playing football altogether. This initiative is set out to simply ban tackle football for our youth until their bodies are equipped to handle impact. 

So, how does this look for kids who want to play football? Their answer is flag football. Taking a look at baseball, players begin by playing t-ball long before hitting pitches from a machine or coach, or live pitchers. But would children lose out on the realistic rough play of tackle football if it is yanked from their early playing development?   

Chris Nowinski, CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, says “the kids don’t lose anything in this situation.” He continues to say, “there’s no safety issue that’s known, there’s no football development issue that’s known, no child is being recruited off their fifth-grade film. So, you end up with healthier children, still playing football, just for fewer seasons of tackle.”

On the flip side, some parents believe that postponing tackle football for youth players will create a bigger risk of injury once they start tackle football at high school level. Many parents and players acknowledge that there are football uniform modifications that can be made to increase the safety of play. There are products that reduce g-force impact such as SAFEClipand Zuti Facemask– two revolutionary pieces of football safety equipmentthat have been tested and proven to reduce the impact forces (g-force) that lead to concussions and head injuries.

As with any sport, early fundamental learning is essential to athlete development. Advocates for youth tackle football say that kids will come to learn the various life lessons of the sport – including discipline, aggressiveness and teamwork. 

But there is still growing evidence of a link between repeated brain trauma and CTE, and that brain trauma at younger ages when the brain is still developing can have long-lasting effects. Sports organizations have implemented new operations in light of concussion protocols. Many football organizations – youth through high school – have installed safety products to their players’ helmets to reduce their risk of head injury

Here are some statistics that have helped people determine their position on this topic:

1.    Youth and high school level football participation rates are down, as parents and children question the wisdom of running out on the field.

2.    In 2017, the number of students playing high school football fell for the fourth consecutive year.

3.    On community football fields (children ages 6 to 12), there has been a 17.4-percent decrease over the past five years.

4.    Some of the decline is attributed to growing concerns over head injuries.

5.    Football equipment companies have caught on to this growing concern and have engineered newer, safer products in an effort to support healthier play for youth – and professional – playing levels. Helmet manufacturers are being graded for safety and youth football safetystudies are being conducted at top universities, with the mission to improve player health and safety. Science is quickly reacting to the need at hand.

6.    Learning proper tackling technique at an early age results in a safer tackling technique at high school age. Youth players learn how to properly make contact with others which then lessens the fear of it. Children who have not learned how to tackle properly by age 13 may pose a risk to themselves and other players on the field.

7.    Youth tackle footballpractices create greater intensity and instill a high degree of physicality. Because a tackle play is a series of movements that require arms, legs, shoulders, hands and hips to be in sync with 11 other players, the entire experience is focuses on skill. Young athletes who learn these muscle memories early can apply them when needed as the game speeds up.

8.    Tackle football offers a greater challenge where children are taught how to use their bodies and mind systematically to develop their motor skills. Discipline on the field and chemistry with teammates requires mental fortitude.

9.    Definitive rules are in place regarding full contact at youth football practices. Safety requirements and concussion prevention, recognition and awareness protocols are of the biggest priority for coaches of every league.

10.  Tackle football teaches life lessons: When you get knocked down, you must get back up. This is something a child can keep with them forever.

The answer here could be as simple as ensuring that youth players have the right football safety equipmentand the right tackle practice methods. This could alleviate a lot of concerns surrounding possible brain injuries to younger players. 

What do you think? Join the discussion. 

Richard Williams