California schools will be forced to limit the number of hours and days their football programs’ young athletes can practice tackling and other game-speed hitting plays under a bill signed Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown that responds to concerns over brain injuries that affect thousands of students.
The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1 and applies to all middle and high schools, including private schools, is being welcomed by some coaches but criticized by others, who caution that it could result in more injuries as lesser-prepared athletes take the field.
The law limits full-contact practices to two 90-minute sessions per week during the season and preseason, and prohibits full-contact practices during the offseason. Currently, coaches can hold full-contact practices daily. The law also forces schools to bench players for at least a week if they suffer a concussion. Current rules allow players to return within a day.
“Football is a great sport, but parents want to know if their kids are going to be safe,” said Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, who sponsored the bill. “This is about protecting kids, as well as parents’ peace of mind.”
A concussion is the “short-lived impairment of neurologic function that resolves spontaneously” but can have lasting physical, emotional and cognitive symptoms that interfere with school and social and family relationships, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Concussions are common among high school football players. A 2012 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 32 percent of high school football players said they had suffered concussion symptoms but didn’t seek treatment. A 2013 study by the Institute of Medicine found that high school football players suffered 11.2 concussions for every 10,000 games and practices, almost double the rate of college players. Because the high school data came from only a small number of schools, the study is believed to underreport the concussion rate.
Those statistics, along with steps taken by the National Football League to limit tackling in practice, were the inspiration for the bill, Cooley said.
Many coaches welcomed the new law, saying it will make football a safer sport.
“We hold these kids’ futures, and that is a grave responsibility,” said Mike Ivankovich, head football coach of Acalanes High School in Lafayette. “Reasonable limitations like this are a good thing.”
Ivankovich, to reduce the risk of head injuries, eliminated full-contact practices in 2005 when he coached at Ygnacio Valley High in Concord. He found no link between tackling at practice and success on game day, he said, noting that his team won the North Coast Section championship in 2005. Acalanes doesn’t have full-contact practices, either, he said.
Some coaches said the law, while well-intentioned, could lead to even worse injuries among young athletes because the players won’t have adequate training in safe tackling.
“Unless you practice, you’re not going to know how to protect your head and neck, how to fall properly, or how to tackle someone else safely,” said Chad Nightingale, who has been the head football coach at Salesian High School in Richmond for 19 years. “That’s the irony of this.”
Instruction and practice on dummies is useful, but it’s no replacement for body-on-body contact, he said. A better way to reduce head injuries is to improve helmets and pads, and make sure players wear them properly.
California is among several states that have taken steps to address high school football head injuries. Texas – home of “Friday Night Lights,” a paean to high school football – restricts full-contact practice to only one 90-minute session per week.
Patrick Walsh, head coach at Serra High School in San Mateo, said the new law won’t affect his team much because he already limits full-contact practices to one a week.
“Football is more violent than any other sport,” he said. “But my responsibility as coach is to keep the kids as healthy as possible, both in body and mind. … Injured players are not good players.”