Local coaches at odds with proposed anti-tackling bill

Last week, a proposed bill by Massachusetts lawmakers hit the area football scene with a significant reaction from coaches, players, parents, fans, or basically anyone involved with the sport.

The bill, HD.2501, if passed, would outlaw organized tackle football in the Commonwealth from anyone in the seventh grade or under, and that a fine of those who break it would start at $2,000.

There has been massive outcry over social media and elsewhere by those opposing this piece of legislation. Even though the thought behind the bill — to limit head injuries among young people — is a noble one, those MassVarsity have interviewed view this as the wrong solution.

We spoke to coaches at both the youth and high school levels, and the overwhelming sentiment is that even if someone is not a huge proponent of tackle football at a young age, the government stepping in and making it illegal is unnecessary. The belief among those interviewed is that this will actually make the sport more dangerous at the high school level. Finally, the elimination of youth tackle football would have a negative effect in certain communities, cutting off a key avenue to opportunities at advancing the education of student-athletes.

"This thing's crazy," said Dana Olson, an assistant coach at Milford High. "Believe it or not, I'm not a huge proponent of kids playing tackle football at a young age. I think sixth grade's a good starting point. I think flag (football) is great, because if it's a good program that's a football-based, fundamental program, and they're teaching the game, I think kids . . . I think flag's a better advantage because it's going to help boost our numbers. And like I say to parents all the time, they say, 'Well, what's your opinion?' As long as they start playing by sixth or seventh grade, then there's a foundation there. Flag can supplement it at the younger levels and stuff like that, but it should be a parent's choice. The state shouldn't be telling parent's that your kid can't play tackle football. That's crazy. That's crazy, you know? It's a parent's choice."

He added, "They're jumping in and giving their two cents, and who are they? They're politicians. Worry about the veterans, and the homeless veterans, and the medical attention they need. The public schools are underfunded. My opinion? They have no business sticking their nose into youth sports or high school sports or any sports, to be honest with you."

Medfield High coach Erik Ormberg feels that the bill leaps over all the progress that is being made, and that the logic behind this ban is faulty.

"I'm all for safety first, and I really believe that football has never been safer than it is right now," Ormberg said. "The way we have to practice, the way we have to teach tackling, it's a healthy change. To be honest with you, the guy that reconditions our helmets, and he does a lot of towns, and he said, 'I know you guys are doing a good job, because there's 25 percent less wear and tear on the helmets I collect every December.' Those are the things where I wish they would give us an opportunity to implement these things and try to teach things the right way at every level, instead of just saying, 'Let's eliminate this.' "

"That's the part where, I've been saying it for a while, I think football is under attack, and the trust isn't being given to the coaches and to the administrators to allow people to teach things the right way," Ormberg added. "You're teaching tackling the right way, the earlier you do it, the better off you're probably going to be by the time they get up to the high school level when their bodies mature and grow."

That's where the safety issue crystalizes, according to those interviewed. The later you teach tackling techniques to kids, the greater the risk you put them in for when they get to high school.

"Absolutely. I think, again, you think of how important repetition is when it comes to football. I know, from our level, we're teaching tackling now with a lot of bags," Ormberg said. "We're not hitting each other. We're trying to replicate what's going to happen in a game, and we want those younger guys to get all those reps in practice, because that's what's going to pay off when they become varsity-caliber guys, and their bodies catch up and mature. So if you're starting from square one with ninth-graders or 10th-graders coming in, yeah, they're going to be missing out on thousands and thousands of other repetitions. It's like the earlier you pick up a lacrosse stick or a hockey stick and you're committed to that, usually the better stick-handler you're going to be, and I would say the same goes for tackling."

That only opens up the door to more injuries.

"Without question. I'm going to tell you where the most injuries occur on a football field, is at the moment of doubt," said William Watson, the offensive coordinator at Springfield Central and youth coach in that city. "And what I mean by that is, if me and you are on the football field, you have the football, you're running full speed, I'm running full speed, there's going to be a full-speed collision any second. Right at the last second at the point of attack, someone usually pulls up a little bit, and when they do that, they almost give themselves up to take the brunt of the hit as opposed to giving it. That's where you see them get hurt or dinged up or whatever the case may be. It's because they're not ready for the contact.

"So if you're not used to the contact all the way up to eighth grade and you get up to high school, and you start playing with kids a couple ages older than you who have been in the weight room for a few years and you don't know how to defend yourself, you're just a victim. You're running around there, you're going to be a victim of a big collision, and you're not going to know how to defend yourself."

Marty Tighe is the head of Lowell Junior High Athletics, which serves as a feeder system to the local high schools. He has seen first-hand what disparities in the start time of tackling can do to young players.

"I took the league over about nine years ago, and we were seventh and eighth, primarily," Tighe said. "We added fifth and sixth, and that's why I think there's another interesting piece to this is, we would be playing towns where kids would be starting in the younger ages. They were just well ahead of the game. Then we'd have kids, we'd have a seventh- and eighth-grade team, and when you have all new kids, and you're playing a team with several years of experience, it's really, it's not healthy. It's not safe for the kids, because they're so far behind the eight-ball. We started a fifth- and sixth-grade team to introduce them to sports, and it's really been very productive, and I would say it's much safer at the seventh- and eighth-grade level because of it."

Tighe and Watson also feel if youth tackle football is eliminated in their communities, it would have a larger negative impact.

"Just this year alone from Lowell High School, there's a kid, Justin Villanueva, he's going to play for Assumption College (for) free," Tighe said. "We've got three kids at the University of New Hampshire that got scholarships. There's one kid at Syracuse University. I'm not saying we're producing these kids. We're not. But we are introducing the game to them. They excelled at it, and they stayed at it. They learned the commitment level, and then they went to high school and excelled. But because we have this, we introduce it to them, and it kept them out of an awful lot of trouble, and then they were able to go on and succeed."

"In the city here in Lowell, 50 percent of the population is living below the poverty level," Tighe added. "So there's a lot that comes with that, right? Kids can get in trouble in many different ways, particularly gangs. And we lose kids to gangs every week. But if you're keeping them involved in something positive, they're in contact and see positive role models, that's something that can be life-changing. And I'm not just saying it for the inner city. I know it can be for any group of people. But there are a set of challenges that come with kids in inner cities that sports that teach commitment and require a level of hard work and commitment, it just lends to these kids doing better and staying away from some of the other temptations that come around."

Watson echoed those comments.

"It would be very sad (if this bill passed)," Watson said. "Especially when you talk about inner-city teams, football is more than just a game out here. For a lot of kids it's a path. It's a path to a greater life, (a greater) lifestyle. It gives kids light at the end of the tunnel. They know if a kid comes from a lower-income area, and they say, 'This is something that I love and I know how to do it, and I put my all into it, now I can become a college student, go to college, maybe even for free, and just make a better life for myself.' Just from that aspect alone, it's a big deal.

"I just finished talking to a kid a couple minutes ago, and we were just talking about that. That's what he said. He said, 'I couldn't imagine my life without youth football. That's what made me not want to get involved with the streets. I decided to become a student-athlete because of youth football.' "

It's from that lens that Watson sees this issue making the most difference.

"A lot of times in the inner city, kids are looking for a way to be successful. No one wants to just make it," Watson said. "They're looking for something where they at least have the opportunity to be great. Sports gives them that opportunity. It doesn't guarantee. They understand it's only a small percentage that make it, but it gives them the ability to strive for something.

"If you take that away . . . Right now, for me, sports is about giving kids an alternative from the streets. When kids see the guys that are successful in the streets, they see the flashy cars, they see the jewelry, they see all this money. A kid's going to say, 'I want that. I want to be a part of that.' They're not going to see, they're not going to know the bad side of that. They're just going to say, 'I want that much now. I want to be or feel as important as that guy.'

"We try to make sports, and specifically football, more attractive than that. We say, 'You're not going to walk around like that right now, but when you get older you'll be able to take care of your family. You'll be able to get a great job. You'll be able to do all these great things and get all these things that you might now see right now, but you'll be able to live the majority of your life like that, and you won't have to look over your shoulder.' So football becomes more attractive than the streets. You take that away, what else do we put in front of the kids? Now, I know most folks would love to say, 'Oh, books and education.' But a lot of kids are not mature enough to see the value in education at an early age. So you almost have to fool them. You almost have to trick them until they are old enough and mature enough to value that education piece of it."

The argument against that is flag would simply replace tackle football. Watson, however, doesn't feel it would adequately do that.

"No. No. It's a completely different game. It's a completely different game, and Massachusetts is already behind the eight-ball with the way sports is structured up here," Watson said. "You go down to Florida, or you go down to Texas, these states that really get behind it, they have spring ball. They're doing more. We're talking about doing less. And we already do less than everyone else, and we're talking about even cutting into that. These other states, they're doing more. You can see the difference in the results that they get. I don't even care about who's the better state in football. Look at the scholarships. You go to South Florida, you take Dade and Broward County alone, they get more Division 1 full scholarships to college than the whole New England combined for a couple of years. So in one year, out of these two counties, Dade and Broward, in South Florida, they will have more scholarships this year than we've probably gotten the last seven or eight years.

"There's a clear path through football to get to college and get your education for free. I don't think there's any greater goal for any kid right now than to get a free education in college, because who wants to graduate college with loans and bills and spend the next half of your life trying to pay back, forget your education, you could have got it free. But there's no way that flag football's going to prepare you for that.

"That thought alone is terrible, never mind the fact that as a parent, why do I need a politician making a decision for my child? When did I become so incompetent as a parent that I can't make a decision on what my child should or shouldn't do, by myself? The last time I checked, he gets in trouble, I've got to pay for that. I've got to deal with the situation, no one else. So I don't know why anyone else would think for me as a parent."

Ormberg agrees that flag, while a positive activity, cannot prepare one for the high school level the way tackle does.

"Obviously, if this goes into place, now you're looking at trying to salvage these middle school programs or transition them into flag football, which I know that has started," Ormberg said. "The one thing is that flag football has certainly taken off. It prepares you, but it is not replicating tackle football at all. It's a nice activity. My own kids do it. My own kids don't have an interest in playing tackle football, but flag football is fun, and it's exciting, and it teaches them space. It has a lot of similar things for the age level. But the people that are committed at the younger levels, if this goes, it's going to be a huge hit to the game of football, and it's going to show up at a certain level, at the high school level. And that final product or preparation is going to look a lot different than it has in the last 30 or 40 years."

And what Ormberg and others interviewed feel is that the game is already moving in a safer direction, and that this bill is ignoring that progress.

"I think (the bill is) ill-advised," Tighe said. "One is, you're keeping kids out of trouble. The next is, kids involved with sports, their GPAs, their level of engagement is much higher than those that aren't. On the third, and I think part of the biggest one is, I think anyone that would put this bill forward is not fully educated on how the game has changed, how the teaching techniques have changed. . . . It's just a safer game. It's a safer environment. We had 120 kids last year. We had one concussion. That's very different than when we played, right?

"If you take a look at the concussion policies of the leagues . . . For instance, ours is, if a kid gets a concussion, I really don't want him to play. What happens is, the parents actually get mad at us, because I require a doctor's note, doctor saying, 'He's fine to come back.' And when he does, there's one week with no pads, one week with a helmet, one week with full pads, and by that time I hope the season's over, because I don't want to see the kid play. So it's very, very conservative. . . . It's a very different deal. I think people are recognizing it more. I think it's been diagnosed more often, and people are being super-conservative, because as a guy who's a president of a league, the last thing I want is a kid to suffer a second concussion because we're trying to win a youth football game or something."

Mainly, those interviewed felt the government getting involved to this degree is simply not welcome.

"But from a high school coach's perspective? Stay out of sports. You guys got enough issues going on in Massachusetts, in our state, with roads and health care and everything else, that you don't need to be sticking your nose in that," Olson said. "It's a parent's choice. As far as I'm concerned, it's . . . I just went down and watched EFA, which is that football academy down in Weymouth in the bubbles of the old air base. It's great, and he runs an elementary level, a middle school level, and a high school level, and it's great. It's all football-based and everything else. But it's like, at what point do you say, 'Guys, stay out of youth sports. Stay out of sports, in general.' There are so many bigger problems in our state than going after youth sports right now.

"From a development standpoint, these kids, when they hit sixth, seventh, eighth grade . . . I get it, I might be one of the very few who say, 'Do they really need to be playing tackle football in second, third, fourth grade?' My opinion? No, they don't. But that's just my opinion. I've been doing it a long time. I think flag supplements that. But I get where people are coming from, saying that, 'Hey, don't tell us that we don't have a choice to allow our kids to do it or not.' It's got to be a choice."

Said Watson: "I just don't think that politicians should be telling people how to raise their children, and what decisions to make. I think that should only be left in the hands of the parents who take care of the kids. They know their children best. Some kids need football. They need that outlet. They need an organized place where they can be physical and roughhouse and play, just allow boys to be boys. If you keep taking them away, and keep making them illegal, then what's the next step? Are we going to start locking our boys up because they have a motor and they want to play and they get rough? I don't know. I just don't really understand the thought process behind it all."

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