YOUTH TACKLE FOOTBALL

Local league director opposes state lawmakers’ bid to ban sport

BY TEDDY FEINBERG tfeinberg@bakersfield.com

Youth tackle football could be illegal in California sooner rather than later.

That’s according to a bill proposed by Assembly members Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego. The bill is in response to possible health risks associated with playing the game, and head trauma that can be suffered from multiple concussions.

If passed into law, anybody under age 12 could not participate in youth tackle football of any sort. It’s projected for 2020, if not sooner.

In Bakersfield — where football remains an important part of the community — the proposed bill has not fallen on deaf ears.

Ron White, executive director of Golden Empire Youth Tackle Football and Cheer, is an opponent of the bill.

Golden Empire is a premier youth league in the area, established in 1998 and now with roughly 3,000 players taking the field. White said 1,100 cheerleaders also participate, along with 600 to 800 coaches.

Games are played at 12 locations every Saturday in the fall.

We caught up with White last week to discuss the bill, and how it could impact his organization and community. White is joined in the interview by Golden Empire’s assistant to the director, Teresa Williams.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TBC: What’s going to happen?

White: We believe that we’re going to defeat the bill. Through grass-roots opposition, primarily through the state. We’ve started that, we’ve mobilized now, we’re very organized. ... We believe the bill has no foundation. There’s no medical ... correlation. It does not tie back to CTE (degenerative brain disease). ... Consumers feel like they’re best served to make decisions for an elective activity for what their children should participate in, and it’s extreme government overreach.

TBC: I’m sure the thought of it being eliminated is scary. It’s a big deal locally and for yourself, personally, it’s clearly a lifestyle. White: I’ve spent 30 years doing this but I want to be clear, it’s less of a big deal for a lifestyle for me as it is for the residual impact it’s going to have on families and kids. For me, football is the catalyst for much bigger areas. Football is simply a vehicle to keep kids involved in organized sports. Whatever the sport is, the back end of it, the residual is what’s important to us. How does it impact education, what are we doing with at-risk kids? ... There are tremendous underserved communities here. Football for them is not

just a way of life, it’s an avenue up to ascend.

Williams: I’ve been involved with this league for 15 years and my son graduated from high school now, played 10 years of football. ... My son went to high school to play football. ... He continued his education because of the people involved in his life who helped him do that. ... Had he not had this sport or had people pushing him or something to reach for, that outcome could have been, and probably would have been, very different.

TBC: How many kids come through Golden Empire, move through the ranks, and go on to play high school football in Bakersfield?

White: Thousands. We just celebrated 20 years. ... I would comfortably say that over those 20 years, if we’re looking at 3,500-4,000 participants in this league (annually), you could say the lion’s share continue to go on and play. ... We are a feeder for (the high schools).

TBC: Is it conceivable that a player not knowing how to tackle properly until middle school could actually be more dangerous than the alternative?

White: Absolutely. You’re talking about a player without the opportunity to have progressive development at this level. To be able to learn how to put a helmet on. To understand contact, to understand body position, hand placement. To understand, really, the nomenclature of the game and how it progresses up. Importantly here, from a low-energy environment, to high school, which is a much higher-energy environment. All those things are true.

TBC: Are there benefits to a kid starting later?

White: In a compare-and-contrast, I would say absolutely not. ... The analogy I would give you is, you’re an employer and you’re hiring someone and I’m looking at somebody that’s had five, six years experience before you go to that level, or somebody with one. Common sense would tell you that a cumulative progression helps in ascending up to that level.

TBC: Some people would say there’s a developing brain you’re dealing with.

White: I’m troubled by that assertion for this one point: When you say that’s the developing brain, last time I checked the brain doesn’t stop developing at 12, it doesn’t stop developing at 11, and there’s variances in individuals. When you look at individual DNA and how people align differently, I have a hard time with the assertion that 12 is the magic bullet point. Maybe it’s 13, maybe it’s 10.

TBC: It’s about choice. If you don’t want your kid playing until seventh or eighth grade, that’s your choice. But in this proposed bill, it could be law.

White: Who’s better to make a decision for a child in an elective activity than the mother and father in a home? And to reach into that home, and say I know what’s best for that child, is intrusive, offensive and one more attempt at government overreach.

TBC: Have there been changes in rules or drills to make the game safer?

White: Football for years and years was the wild, Wild West. Within the last six to eight years, the modifications to the game, both internally and externally, have been tremendous. ... There’s been an emphasis on removing the head and head contact in games. There are penalties for targeting, for using the crown of your head. That old-school mentality of 3 yards and a cloud of dust ... that’s antiquated and it’s been gone for a very long time.

TBC: So what specific changes have taken place?

White: Reduction in contact period (in practice). ... Removing special teams at certain levels. Reducing quarter length for our rookie players. Working with the Kern County Officials Association and putting an emphasis on targeting and things to change that. ... We now define what days of the week you have contact (in practice).

TBC: Flag football is growing. Has that cut into your numbers?

White: We haven’t felt the impact. And we believe sometimes they’re a different market. I will openly say that it seems to be popular. ... In terms of optics, if you’re the normal consumer, and you do a side-by-side comparison, you’re like ‘Oh, it’s flag, it’s much safer.’ I challenge that theory. ... The largest study ever done in the United States compared tackle and flag. Dr. Andrew Peterson out of Iowa ... compared the two. Over a year. And their consensus coming back is that, actually higher rate of accident and incident is in flag, not in tackle. ... And I’m not discrediting flag. I think any time anybody does something positive to work with kids, I’m all in. But the assertion that flag is a safer sport is statistically untrue.

TBC: Are you talking head injuries in flag?

White: I’m talking all injuries. What gets headlines, sometimes, is sub-concussive blows, concussive activity. But there are a litany of injuries that affect young athletes. We’ve seen them all. ... When we see concussions as an organization, I’d say 94-plus percent are never helmet to helmet, they’re always head to ground. ... That same head has the ability to go to the ground in flag but without the helmet.

TBC: How are your numbers in 2017 compared to your numbers 10, 15 years ago?

White: We’ve been pretty insulated. I’d say upward trend every year. This in an extremely rich, traditional football community. ... I’d say tracking numbers nationally, that the youth tackle football world and the high school tackle football world, statistically the numbers have shrunk.

TBC: Year to year, how many serious injuries are taking place? How many are head injuries?

White: HIPAA would not allow me to get into specifics. But I would say in terms of catastrophic injury, we’ve had none, knock on wood. In terms of the occasional concussion, I would say it would be less than 1 percent is a standard number I could provide you. ... We’ve seen a marked reduction. We’ve put a priority on safety.

(Note: HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, is a federal law that sets rules for health care providers and health insurance companies about who can look at and receive a person’s health information.)

TBC: How do you ensure the fact that all your coaches (600 to

800) are trained — watchdogs if you will — on head injuries? Spotting concussions, recognizing a kid with symptoms, getting them off the field?

White: Training and education. ... Not just the head coach has a certification, all coaches. Our structure breaks apart like this: We have a player safety director who oversees all that in terms of tackling certification. ... We’re broken up into two conferences. ... In that conference ... we have a board member in place who runs the program. We have coaches at large and area reps and area rep supervisors who are on site and are required to be on site to monitor all activity. When you take a look at infrastructure as an organization, and we talk about 800 coaches, that doesn’t even get to the board members. ... Required certification, required ongoing training, meetings with officials, coaching clinics. ... If coaches aren’t ... teaching the requirements, doing things that we’re asking them to do within that structure, they simply won’t be here.

TBC: What is the commitment you ask from players?

White: Football, unlike other sports, takes a longer commitment. For us, timeline is this: We start a tryout process ... teams are eligible to start that March 1. But, realistically, toward mid-to-late March where they’re going on a limited basis. Not in equipment at all. No contact. So they’re going through the trial process and we’re kind of forming teams, I guess the max is four hours a week, two days a week. From roughly, we’ll say, the end of March through maybe June. ... At that point we parallel a traditional football season. So we get into equipment in terms of contact, late July ... and then games would start late August and go through November.

TBC: Are you a proponent of kids playing multiple sports?

White: A huge proponent. ... That’s why we use the phrasing, it’s volunteer. That’s why it’s done on a limited basis. ... Plenty of the kids that we talked about, are really just football-focused. That’s what they want to play. So we start keeping them involved in positive activities, steer them away from a sedentary lifestyle. And we provide that on a non-mandatory basis.

Teddy Feinberg can be reached at 661-395-7324. Follow him on Twitter: @TeddyFeinberg.