Football remains king of America’s spectator sports, with Super Bowl Sunday a virtual national holiday each February.
But its underpinnings remain under considerable stress, largely the result of the long-term impact of head injuries on players from local youth programs through the NFL ranks.
The mere threat of such injuries has led to a gradual drop in the number of high school football players around the country. In 2017, 1,036,842 high school students played 11-player football, down 1,057,382 in 2016, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Maine is no different, with 3,443 competitors in 11-player football in 2017, down from 3,631 a year earlier.
Now, the Maine Legislature is getting involved. A bill — LD 711 — sponsored by Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, that would establish a commission to study and recommend a minimum age for participation in tackle football went through a public hearing last week before the Joint Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs.
Brennan cited the presence of data and research linking repeated head blows to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive, neurodegenerative disease that is incurable and discovered only through autopsy.
A 2017 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that of 202 deceased former football players whose brains were donated for research, 87 percent were found to have evidence of CTE, including 99 percent of the 111 the NFL players in the study.
Among symptoms of CTE — which typically manifest years after the head injuries occurred — are depression, memory loss and, eventually, progressive dementia.
“The purpose of this legislation is to review the current data and research related to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, and determine if steps should be taken to protect the health and safety of youth who participate in tackle football in the state of Maine,” Brennan said in a written statement introducing the bill.
LD 711 would create a 13-member commission that would submit a report, including proposed legislation, to the Legislature in 2020.
The commission would include three members of the Maine Senate, four from the House, representatives of the Maine School Superintendents Association, the Maine Principals’ Association and the Maine Athletic Trainers Association, and three members of the public.
“This is an opportunity for the state to act proactively to prevent long-term consequences that will be costly and irreversible,” Brennan said.
While the bill targets youth football — legislative efforts in other states largely have involved whether kids should play any tackle football before middle school — Maine high school officials see value in the conversations that would result from creating a commission.
“Our legislative committee and sports medicine committee both supported forming a commission to look at youth football and when [tackling] should be introduced,” Maine Principals’ Association assistant executive director Mike Burnham said in advance of his testimony before the committee.
While the association oversees Maine high school football, it has no role in youth football.
“Being involved in the sport of football and with the declining numbers [of players in Maine], I think we would welcome the opportunity to be part of the discussion,” Burnham said.
Burnham recommended during his testimony that the commission include health care professionals who work with young athletes and coaches.
The Maine Football Coaches Association also has taken a keen interest in the issue.
“We’ve been studying the beginnings of this bill in an attempt to be proactive, to be part of the commission, to have representation on it and really be able to add to the meat of it in a way that is both supportive of our game but supportive of safety,” said Dan O’Connell, head football coach and athletic administrator at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and a member of the coaches association’s executive committee.
O’Connell said his organization has followed other states’ efforts to improve football safety in an effort to reverse the trend of declining participation.
He believes those modifications ultimately will mean that kids’ first live, full-contact participation on a 100-yard field will be in seventh and eighth grade.
“We want to be involved in a positive way in addressing the safety in our sport, particularly at the youth level,” he said.
The bill follows similar action in several other states, including Massachusetts, where legislation was introduced in late January to ban children in seventh grade and under from playing tackle football.
Similar efforts in California, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey and New York did not become law, but the continuing scrutiny on the long-term effects of head injuries has kept the topic at the forefront of discussions about tackle football nationwide.
The Massachusetts bill would not prohibit kids in seventh grade and under from other forms of the sport such as flag football and touch football. National trends suggest a switch from tackle football to flag football already is occurring at the youth level.
According to a recent Aspen Institute study, 988,260 U.S. kids ages 6-12 played flag football in 2017, compared with 871,465 who played tackle football.
That same study showed that participation in flag football for players ages 6-12 increased from 2.8 percent of that population in 2012 to 3.3 percent in 2017. Participation in tackle football for that age group decreased from 3.6 percent of that population in 2012 to 2.9 percent in 2017.
“The old-school notion that everybody should be tackling in grade two and then get as many reps as necessary from then on is not only unsafe but it’s not practical and it’s not doing anything for our [high school football participation] numbers,” O’Connell said.
“We’d like to do as much as we can to keep kids as involved in the game of football, regardless of what it looks like, for as long as possible and we feel the way to do that is to give kids every opportunity to feel as comfortable as possible and stay as safe as possible and be involved as long as possible.”
A work session on the bill has been scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday.