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Debate begins over California bill that could ban youth tackle football for kids under 12

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(SACRAMENTO, Calif.) — The California legislature began debating a bill Wednesday that would ban youth tackle football for children under age 12.

AB 734, introduced last year by Sacramento Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, a Democrat, would “prohibit a youth sports organization that conducts a tackle football program, or a youth tackle football league, from allowing a person younger than 12 years of age to be a youth tackle football participant through the organization or league.”

McCarty argued at the time that flag football is safer than tackle football, and that even the National Football League (NFL) has adopted flag football in certain situations.

“The 2023 NFL Pro Bowl was a flag football game for the safety of the players,” McCarty said in a statement last year. “Why can’t we have that for our youth? AB 734 will help protect kids and nurture their brain development, and not put them in a situation that’s proven to cause irreparable harm.”

The bill had its first public hearing Wednesday before the California State Assembly’s Arts, Entertainment, Sports, and Tourism Committee. It will next need to be passed by the full Assembly by the end of January before going to the state Senate. If it passes there, it will go to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk for signing into law. If he does so, the bill will take effect in January 2026.

Public health experts have argued that tackle football can put youth athletes at risk of brain injury and trauma.

“When we look at kids under the age of 12, tackle football is a high-risk sport,” Dr. Brian Feeley, an orthopedic surgeon and the chief of the division of sports medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told ABC News affiliate KGO.

Feeley said there is an elevated risk of concussions in tackle football, which can affect the development of young children, noting that concussions can result in “higher risk for anxiety, depression, [and] suicidal ideation.”

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study in 2021 found that youth tackle football participants received 15 times more head impacts than those who played flag football, during both practices and games. They also sustained 23 times more “high-magnitude” head impacts, defined by the study as greater than or equal to 40 times the force of gravity.

‘These findings suggest that non-contact or flag football programs may be a safer alternative for reducing head impacts and concussion risk for youth football athletes under age 14,” the CDC wrote.

Recent studies have also found that youth tackle football raises the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disorder that can be caused by repeated head injuries.

A March 2023 study from the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and CTE Center found that those who played tackle football at an early age, or for more than 11 years, had less white matter in the brain, potentially leading to memory and behavior issues, which are hallmarks of CTE.

However, some youth football coaches oppose the bill. Chewy Orr and Damon Gardner, coaches of youth tackle football team the Oakland Dynamites, told KGO that sports other than tackle football carry the risk of injuries and that flag football is not a better option.

“Flag football just doesn’t carry enough kids,” Orr said. “We have 30 kids. Flag football typically though we’d maybe have about 15.”

Assemblymember McCarty’s office did not immediately reply to ABC News’ request for comment.

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