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.