Parents, coaches and lawmakers struggle for a game plan on child safety
On a warm September Saturday morning Vincent Carrillo, 10, suited up for the Charter Oak Chargers in Covina for his game against the Montebello Indians.
In the second quarter Carrillo stripped Montebello’s running back near the goal line and took the ball the other way, looking to score. As he ran toward the end zone, one of Montebello’s players tackled him from behind.
The athletic director and a medic took Carrillo to the sideline and started asking him questions. Carrillo said he felt light-headed. Even though he had no visible head impact on the play, as he was tackled from behind, the athletic director and medic took him out for the rest of the game.
With head and brain injuries in football, protecting kids from themselves and their parents has gone from a priority to a necessity as four states, including California, have proposed laws that would eliminate youth tackle football until high school.
Vincent’s father, Azusa resident Steven Carrillo, 30, first introduced his son to tackle football at age 5, the youngest age a child can start playing tackle for the Charter Oak Youth football league. Steven Carrillo played football his whole childhood, from age 6 to 18.
He said his love of the game is what made him put his son in football at such a young age, and that he is not concerned about him getting head injuries while playing.
“I don’t worry about that,” Steven Carrillo said. “Once you start thinking like that, chances are you will get hurt. That’s how I was brought up around the game.”
Steven Carrillo, who is one of the coaches on his son’s team, thinks the new coaching methods and other changes introduced by Heads Up, a program developed by USA Football and funded in part by the NFL, to make the game safer at all levels from youth to high school have made the game safer for not only his son, but for kids everywhere.
During practice if the coaches see a kid using bad tackling technique – such as putting his head down, which increases the chances of head and neck injuries – they will stop practice and bring the whole team together to explain what happened during the play and correct it immediately.
Looking at what you are tackling minimizes the risk of a head injury by protecting the top of the head. Other changes include cutting the amount of practices to three per week and only allowing 40 minutes of contact per practice. Tackling and blocking can only be done from within three yards when it is head-on, where traditionally such drills were done from a greater distance and players were going at higher speeds.
Also, referees can flag a child for a helmet-to-helmet hit. This kind of tackled was encouraged many years ago, and now it is illegal and can result in a penalty and ejection from a game.
“Football is safer now than when I played, 100 percent.” Steven Carrillo said. “If a kid goes helmet to helmet they will flag them in the game where before that was OK.”
Vincent Carrillo says he is not scared of playing football even though he has seen some of his teammates deal with serious head injuries. One of his teammates suffered a concussion in a game and was not allowed back for the entire season. His teammate was also not allowed to play any kind of organized sport or have much physical activity for the next six months as he recovered. Vincent echoed the same message as his father in that if you play scared you will get hurt.
“The coaches tell us to keep our head up, and go through the waist,” Vincent Carrillo said. “They stop practice and we talk about it if we don’t.”
The 2015 movie “Concussion” showed the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and its connection to football.
The fact-based movie shed light on the reality of the risks with playing the sport over time.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith, studied the brains of former NFL players and found clumps of tau proteins in these brains that lead to impaired function. The movie has been associated with the drop in participation at the youth level. Dr. Omalu, who named CTE, has said that allowing kids under 18 to play football is, by definition, child abuse.
Several state legislatures have proposed laws eliminating tackle football for kids younger than 12 because of recent research on CTE and concussions. No states have passed these laws to date in part because of push back by parents.
The NFL has injected money into youth football programs to try to make them safer, but still ensuring children continue to remain interested in and continue to play.
Football is still popular, and despite the research, parents are still signing their kids up.
“If you take (youth) football away, you’re losing an opportunity to prepare them at a younger age to be safer down the road,” La Verne head football coach Chris Krich said.
California was the fifth state to propose legislation to eliminate tackle football for young kids, joining Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey and New York. Though none of the states have passed any laws yet, there are a growing number of people, including former NFL players, who agree that it is too dangerous for children to play tackle football at such a young age.
The proposed bills are similar: they aim to eliminate tackle football because of the potential risks for head injuries and also long-term brain injuries such as CTE.
California’s proposed bill, which would have prohibited tackle football until age 14, was recently rejected by state legislators even despite recent research finding that even smaller head traumas can lead to CTE.
Boston University released a long-term study in 2017 that found it is not only concussions, but also repeated smaller impacts to the head over time, that are linked to CTE.
One of the problems with CTE studies is that the condition can only be diagnosed after death.
In another study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, 202 football players brain’s of all levels from youth football to semi-professional to the NFL were examined, of those 202 brains, 177, about 88 percent had CTE.
Participation in tackle football has been on the decline. In 2009 there were 3.96 million children playing football ages 6 to 17 by 2015, that number fell by more than 20 percent to 3.21 million, according to statistics from the Sport & Fitness Industry Association.
Nevertheless, USA Football reported a small increase in youth tackle football participation in 2015, but the sport is at a crossroads because of mounting medical research published in recent years.
Football organizations have tried to counter this with newer coaching methods such as by putting limitations of the amount of practice time and contact time during practice, while educating coaches on concussion and head injuries.
Concussion training and equipment have also been introduced to help reduce the risks; it even with these advancements may not be enough to save the game at the youth level.
Although all levels of football have made attempts to get safer, there is no guarantee that those changes can take away the health risks associated with the sport. There is contact in football on every play and it is the repeated collisions over time that can lead to CTE down the line for children who start playing football at an early age.
Heads Up football is in all 50 states and youth football leagues that use Heads Up football saw a 63 percent decline across all injuries during practice, according to USA Football in a study published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine.
Before Heads Up was launched, coaches did not have to do any formal training before stepping onto the field. Now, every coach must take courses online before they can participate. They learn both the fundamentals of the game, which include tackling and how to spot and handle concussions, as well as athlete preparedness, such as hydration and how weather conditions affect players during practice and game situations.
Some of the new implementations that have come into youth football come from the coaching side. As part of the Heads Up program, kids are now taught how to tackle without using their helmets and focusing on leading with their shoulder and keeping their head up so they can see what they are tackling.
“I think the level of coaching has gotten better,” Krich said. “You see a lot of positive aspects, but it all comes down to coaches having to implement that every day. It must be transferred from the certification to the field.”
As a coach and former player, Krich does not want to see youth tackle football eliminated, he said that the contact is what drew him to the game and so many that play football love the contact aspect. But he said he understands the reason to curb tackling.
Krich believes eliminating youth tackle football is going too far right now. He said he would like to see further research before any talk of eliminating the sport.
Krich also added that it can have an effect on the number of children that go on to play in high school and that can have an effect on the collegiate game. Noting that even fewer may play if this law were to pass as numbers are already down.
“If you’re a small college coach like us there is a little bit of a worry because there may be less people playing, but time will tell,” Krich said. He also went on to say that he would allow his son to play tackle football if and when he wants to, but would not force it upon him.
“We are finding ways of making the sport safer,” he said. “I am glad we are taking precautions and talking about it. The biggest difference now versus when I played is that people are aware and communicating about it.”
La Verne junior quarterback Joshua Evans agrees that eliminating youth tackle football would be a mistake. Evans began playing tackle football at 10 and has had concussions, but continued to play collegiately. He says that too can help keep children out of trouble and that starting later on in high school would be a disadvantage to a lot of potential players.
“I think kids will get hurt by starting later,” Evans said. “If you start younger you will already have the knowledge of how to tackle.”
The Boston University CTE study studied the brains of young athletes, ages 17 to 19.
One of the subjects was a 17-year-old boy who played football, basketball, baseball and lifted weights. In his lifetime, he had sustained 10 concussions, and not all of them were by playing sports. The last one he got was while he was snowboarding, and he lost consciousness for two minutes.
A little over four months after that concussion, the boy hung himself in his room. His parents noticed an increase in hostility, mental fogginess and frustration before he took his life. He did not have a history of depression, anxiety or suicidal attempts. But he was diagnosed with post-concussive syndrome, in which a person experiences concussion-like symptoms for longer than the average recovery time of two weeks. Some may experience these symptoms for months or even up to a year or more.
“You can find other things and sports to play that give you the discipline that football gives,” Chino resident Sabrina Carrillo, 42, said. “Playing football is not worth the risk.”
She has three boys – Christian, 17, Zachary, 10, and Lincoln, 6. None of them have played tackle football because she does not think the risks associated with the game are worth it for her kids.
They play other sports such as baseball and basketball. While injury is possible in any sport, she said the constant hitting of heads and possibility of long-term head injury made the decision easy to put them in sports like baseball and basketball versus football.
“I like playing football because it pushes you and teaches you hard work pays off,” Vincent Carrillo said. “I like the contact and I don’t think about getting hurt.”
Mark Acosta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.