A proposal to ban tackle football in Illinois for kids under age 12 is effectively dead for now. The lawmaker who spearheaded the so-called Dave Duerson Act, state Rep. Carol Sente, acknowledged the measure lacks sufficient backing to pass the legislature.
The Vernon Hills Democrat said she aims to continue to build support for the measure with the hope it could become law in the future.
“Passing this bill is an extremely important goal to me,” Sente said. “I don’t plan to call the bill for a vote this year, but I’m going to keep it open because every week there is new information.”
Sente is not seeking re-election this year, meaning she will leave the General Assembly in January, so any similar future initiative would need a new legislative champion. Sente said she will continue to advocate for a youth tackle football ban after she leaves the state House.
To support the bill, Sente assembled scientists and former football players who were educated about the dangers of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a brain disease believed to be linked to repeated blows to the head. Her bill was named for the former Chicago Bears player who committed suicide at age 50 and was later found to have CTE.
Duerson’s son Tregg stood with Sente when she unveiled the proposal in January, speaking of his father’s forgetfulness, confusion and depression and dementia like symptoms believed to be linked to CTE.
But opposition came from beyond the legislature. Youth football coaches argued that they’ve made strides to make the game safer and that players who are ill-prepared to play tackle football when they’re older may be more susceptible to injury.
Some medical experts said there is insufficient evidence that those who play tackle football before the age of 12 have an elevated risk for developing CTE.
Jeffrey Nicoll, president of the Bill George Youth Football League covering 19 towns mostly in DuPage County, said player safety is the league’s primary concern. He said children can start playing tackle football in his league as early as second grade and that they’re taught tackling techniques that minimize contact to the head.
“Coaches and parents are looking at safety in everything we do,” Nicoll said. “Given the changes to tackle football in the last four to five years, not to mention the last 20, it is much safer. CTE is not an issue with youth football as it is at the college and pro level.” Chris Nowinski, CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation in Boston, said research indicates that successive blows to the head, especially in young children whose brains are still forming, can cause future brain damage, even if that person never suffers a concussion. Nowinski, an Arlington Heights native, played football at Harvard University and went onto be a professional wrestler.
Bob Anderson, a coach and board member of the Junior Spartans in Northbrook, said that when a player is shaken up during a game, a trainer is the one who decides whether the athlete must leave the game and when he can return. “We had 100 kids play tackle football last year and there were zero concussions,” Anderson said.
The proposed ban did pass one hurdle in Springfield, clearing the House’s Mental Health Committee by a narrow margin in March. But wider support appeared to be elusive.
“I felt, from the responses I did get from some peers, that getting 60 votes in the House, finding a Senate sponsor and getting the governor to sign it was not a viable option,” Sente said. She also acknowledged that football “is something people are very passionate about, especially the parents and the coaches. They need time to process the data to get to the same conclusion I have. They’re just not there yet.”
Steve Sadin is a freelance reporter.