Nanny State

This Bill Turns Your State Into a Football Referee

California is tackling high school football practice.


SACRAMENTO — The nanny state strikes again. The California Assembly recently approved a bill designed to protect middle school and high school football players from head injuries by limiting the number of full-contact practices that teams can have each week.

Soon after its passage last Thursday, some jokesters circulated a cartoon showing players clad in gigantic foam-padded Sumo wrestler suits. Football injuries are no laughing matter, of course, but these aren't the only critics who wonder whether the bill is the latest example of a government that's trying too hard to coddle every Californian.

The passage of AB 2127, on a 50-22 vote, has sparked national attention. That's because it places the state deeply into the inner workings of public, charter, and private school sports programs at the secondary school levels—something more typically governed by school districts and by private athletic groups that set statewide standards.

The California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), whose rules govern high school athletics, already was developing a set of similar rules before the legislature jumped into the picture. Given that districts follow CIF edicts, this raises the question of whether the legislature's action was necessary, regardless of whether the new rules are prudent.

The bill is part of a nationwide public health campaign designed to minimize a supposed rash of concussion-related injuries among student athletes. President Barack Obama last week announced plans for a youth safety summit to address the issue. It's the latest government safety crusade.

One of the worst incidents took place at Mission Hills High School in San Diego County. The San Marcos Unified School District and a sports equipment manufacturer paid a $4.9 million settlement in 2012 to Scott Eveland—a football player who was severely disabled after he collapsed in a game due to a brain injury.

Yet it's hard to see how the new bill would have helped in that situation. Specifically, AB 2127 prohibits schools "from conducting more than two (90-minute) full-contact practices…per week during the preseason and regular season….The bill would also…completely prohibit full-contact practices during the off-season." It mandates that students who suffer a concussion spend seven days under the supervision of a health care professional.

"It's a tremendous bill and one which I believe will be a source of assurance to every parent that their child is in a program that has reasonable boundaries as they learn the skill to not put them at risk of present harm and future disability," said Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, the bill's sponsor.

Republican assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside, a former wrestling coach, said he switched his vote from a "no" to a "yes" after it gained the support of coaches. But other Republicans opposed the bill.

Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, asked whether this is something that merits state control. Her son plays soccer. "Limiting his ability to practice and his team's ability to practice limits their ability to excel in a sport that some of them would love to do as a professional career," she added. California school football teams sometimes play teams from other states and she said this could erode their competitiveness.

No one directly addressed a more obvious issue. The best way to learn how to safely tackle someone is, presumably, to practice safely tackling people. Cooley said the bill doesn't limit practice time, only full-contact practices. But is watching tackling videos or practicing tackling techniques in slow motion or with dummies a good enough substitute?

"The reason you have to have contact days in spring is that you've got to teach players how to play the game and you've got to teach them how to play it safely,"said Grant Teaff, the head of the American Football Coaches Association, in published reports. Some coaches, such as Kim Jorgensen of Ferndale High School in northern California, supported the bill. "We just have to do what we have to do in a shorter amount of time," he told the Eureka Times-Standard. "I don't see any problem there."

It seems problematic to me. When teenagers learn to drive, the goal is to give them as much time behind the wheel as possible. Kids become good drivers by driving on real roads in full-speed conditions under the watchful eye of instructors and their parents. It's not a perfect analogy given that concussions can be a problem if they are repetitive, but it seems odd to protect kids by limiting the time they spend doing a certain activity. If you go down that road, the safest thing is not driving—or playing—at all.

And the "concussion epidemic" appears overstated. A researcher in a study that showed a doubled concussion rate between 2005 and 2012 said in published reports that "increased awareness" is the cause of the higher numbers. In the past, concussions often went unreported.

CIF's executive director Roger Blake reminded me that the biggest danger is when athletes who have suffered a concussion come back to play before they are healed. The state already requires medical clearance before a student gets back into play, although this bill takes it further.

The one time I had a concussion, it happened when my friends and I were mimicking those TV wrestling shows. Even those Sumo pads wouldn't have helped a numbskull teen like me. But instead of taking the legislative equivalent of wrapping football players in giant foam bubbles, maybe the legislature should have had a deeper discussion about the bill's possible unintended consequences.

NEXT: Bankrupt San Bernardino Attempts to Address Inability to Actually Negotiate Public Safety Wages

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  1. As a coach, I fucking hate this. Greenhut is 100% right about the need for full contact practice to learn technique, and the overblown nature of the concussion scare. This will result in more injuries for these kids, not less.
    (Purely anecdotal evidence following)
    In my five years coaching high school football we only had 2 serious injuries, one pre-season broken wrist, and a broken ankle in game 1. The first season at my last team we played our rival very late in the year. So late in fact, that they had already started basketball practice and just did a couple walk- thrus that week. 3 of their players went to the hospital that night.

    1. Also, if anyone is wondering why coaches in CA are onboard with this horse shit, a few months ago the proposed rule change was discussed on a coaches discussion board. The consensus was that most coaches in CA would not obey the rule, but hope their opponents would. The paranoid part of my brain notes that CA has one of the best football teams in the country, De la Salle in Concord. Which happens to be a very good Catholic school. So, being a powerhouse school I’m a state with a lot of people who hate private schools, and achievement, DLS runs a squeaky clean program.

    2. You are a coach that I wouldn’t allow my son to play with–and a reason why parents aren’t putting their kids in football anymore. No concussions at your school–sounds like a coach that preaches you are a wimp if you report.

      There is NO science that less contact practice will result in MORE injuries. But this is what old school coaches preach. Ask the NFL, Ivy leagues and PAC-12 which has been limiting contact for years. The coaches will say the athletes are healthier on game day, and play better because they take the time for technique and fundamentals.

  2. Despite the protestations of the coaches who said that kids need to learn how to tackle safely by doing (something I agree with), most of the evidence is that kids – and later, pros – are increasingly not learning how to tackle safely with current levels of practice…which, of course, is all on the coaches.

    While awareness is revealing more reported concussions, there have always been a lot of them, and there have been more of the low-grade, repetitive kind that don’t necessarily exhibit obvious symptoms (linemen in particular). The problem has always been there.

  3. “Football” is not defined in the bill, and I bet it isn’t in the code section it amends, either.

  4. The more important aspect of not limiting practice isn’t that players get more time to practice hitting “safely”.

    The more important aspect of not limiting practice is that a football player needs to be in “hitting” shape.
    Anyone who has ever played football can tell you that the repetitive contact prepares the body for contact. A hit in the first days of training can hurt like hell and leave you sore and hurting the next day. After a few days or a week the same hit isn’t even felt.

    The NFL already has the answer for the alleged increase in concussions but either don’t remember it or won’t use it. Steve Young was a superstar QB for the 49ers after Joe Montana. he was a scrambling QB who wasn’t afraid to take a hit. He had multiple concussions. The 49ers couldn’t do without him so they came up with a solution.

    The 49ers put a foam cap on the outside of his helmet. It looked goofy. It was big and stupid looking compared to the other players helmets, but it absorbed the shocks of contact better than the hard plastic shell of the other helmets. It worked, but it looked really stupid. A new design of helmets with shock absorbing material on the outside as well as on the inside wold do the trick.

    Bending your neck down leads to broken necks, paralysis, and deaths.

    1. One of the greatest dangers of the new NFL rules about hitting with the helmet is that I see players on TV who are bending their heads down in order to avoid leading with the helmet while they adjust to the new rules.. When I played we were taught to never bend the neck down. Your head should be looking up with the shoulderpads bunched up around the bottom edge of the helmet.

  5. The NFL only allows 14 contact practices ALL season and none-off season. These are guys who make millions of dollars and understand the dangers of repetitive hits to their heads, and they demanded this during collective bargaining. The NFL players aren’t willing to do this–why would we allow our children (with more vulnerable brains) do this?

    There are now about 12 states that limit contact practices (in my state it is just 1-90 minute contact per week). This is not a coaching decision–they are conflicted (a W is the priority) and they don’t have any medical training. Parents–you need to step up and not allow your children to play for coaches/programs that don’t have basic safety rules and provide oversight to the coaches.

    I have been there–and it’s not worth it. This is your kids brain and these are lifetime injuries. Keep a perspective that your child isn’t going to the NFL. To suggest that young players need to hit more to learn how to tackle is old school coaching. Run fast from any coach who believes in this philosophy. The only eduction and training for most of these coaches is what they learned in high school when they played 30 years ago.

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