A Maryland legislator and a former University of Maryland football player are seeking to address growing concerns about youth football players' safety by introducing two bills that would strongly curb playing tackle football at a childhood level and improve player safety.
The first bill, authored by Del. Terri Hill (D-Baltimore and Howard), would eliminate tackle football before high school and bar the sport on publicly owned fields for elementary and middle school children. The proposed legislation would not affect private fields, but private teams who allow tackling would be barred from using public fields, according to the bill, which will be heard by the House Ways and Means Committee on March 2.
Hill said the proposal is "not a ban on football," but rather "a moratorium" on tackle football below high school to protect children.
"When we're talking about children and their brains, I think we need to do what we can to protect them," she said.
Tackle football has been linked to traumatic brain injuries such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative brain disease that has been found in the brains of former players. A 2017 Boston University study analyzed 202 former football players' brains and found 88 percent of them had CTE.
In recent months, states including New York, Illinois and California have proposed similar legislation, but no laws have been passed so far.
Madieu Williams, who played football at this university from 2001 to 2003 and now works as an intern in Hill's office, helped provide insight into crafting the bill and "had a lot to do with what the bill looks like now," Hill said. Williams, who played at DuVal High School in Lanham, suffered a concussion during his very first practice as a freshman, The Washington Times reported.
"Looking back on it and knowing what the science is saying now, that was a concussion," Williams told The Washington Times this week.
The university alumnus played safety for nine seasons in the NFL for the Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins before his career ended in 2012.
The bill would also prohibit checking in lacrosse and hockey, as well as headers in soccer, until high school. An amendment to the bill may remove some sports prior to the bill's hearing in Ways and Means on March 2, Hill said.
While this proposed legislation seeks to reduce the number of head injuries among young players, it could hurt football players' development once they get to high school, said Patrick Cilento, varsity football head coach at the Bullis School in Potomac.
Cilento said the bill "would make it extremely difficult" to teach kids to tackle once they get to high school, because Maryland is already at a disadvantage compared to other states due to restrictions on practice times.
"You can tell the difference between a kid who has played [tackle football] versus a kid who has not," he said.
High school football participation dropped by 2.5 percent in 2017, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Centennial High School in Ellicott City disbanded its football team last year after too few players tried out for the team.
Hill said she knows there will be opposition to the bill but welcomed debate, saying "I certainly don't know everything about this issue, but the wonderful thing about the legislative process is that because this bill is introduced, we're going to have this discussion."
With Williams' help, Hill authored a second bill that would require public high schools to maintain either a licensed healthcare provider or someone who has completed concussion risk and management training to attend all practices and games to manage concussions or head injuries when they occur, the bill said.
"As a former NFL player with extensive experience with concussions, this bill enhances the safety of all youth sports participants within the state of Maryland," Williams told the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday.
Maryland public schools and youth leagues have concussion awareness training for coaches, which consists of identifying players who have experienced a head injury or concussion and removing them from the game, Hill said, adding that there's "a lack of consistency" in the levels of training and responsibility for these officials as well as school personnel and parents.
"Education is the key to all those youths who have sustained a concussion or subconcussive hits," Williams said.
A study published last month in Brain, a neurology journal, found that repeated blows, often called subconcussive hits, to the brains of young athletes was correlated with early signs of CTE. Another study published in 2012 found that nearly half of the estimated 300,000 sports-related concussions that occur annually in the United States are from participating in football, according to the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
"It's not about concussions, it's about repeated head trauma," Hill said, adding that this is "particularly problematic for developing brains.
"The damage is done, science is indicating, may be very long lasting."
State Sen. William C. Smith (D-Montgomery), who sponsors the Senate version of the concussion risk and management bill, said he supports the idea of also barring tackle football but thought the bill's language was too broad.
"Narrowing the bill down to football would make more sense," Smith said. "Not to pick on football, but the evidence, data and research all center on football."