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California lawmakers pushed a tackle football ban. Families pushed back.

Bruce Bertram, 7, who plays tackle football for the Union Mine Junior Rattlers looks up at his mother, Ashley Bertram, as she speaks against a proposed California bill that would ban children under 12 from playing tackle football, during a legislative committee hearing in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO - Heavy rain drenched their paper signs. Cold gusts billowed their hoodies. Passing cars splashed grimy puddles onto their sneakers. But the group of protesters continued to grow through the wet, gray morning, until nearly 100 of them stretched across the strip mall sidewalk, children as young as 8 standing beside parents who had driven as long as an hour to voice their outrage.

“It’s football weather,” said Jay Earhart, the Sacramento Youth Football league commissioner who had organized this gathering. “It don’t bother football people.”

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Two days earlier, a bill to ban tackle football for kids under 12 years old had passed out of the state legislature’s Arts, Entertainment, Sports, and Tourism Committee, bringing California one step closer to becoming the first state in the country to prohibit any form of America’s most popular sport. Assembly Bill 734’s sudden momentum sparked an urgent response from California’s youth football supporters.

“It strikes fear in our eyes,” said Josh Bloat, whose 10-year-old daughter has played tackle football for four years.

No American sport has a firmer grasp on the culture than tackle football. But across the country, the youth version of the sport is losing its grip. A host of factors - geography, politics and money among them - impact where its existence is threatened most. And in a state as big and diverse as California, the shift is playing out unevenly. The participation rate among high-schoolers dropped by 13 percent from 2013 to 2022, higher than the national average, according to a recent Washington Post analysis. But the state still pumps out top-flight players and is home to some of the best high school football programs in the country.

Still, if any state is going to be the first to ban tackle football, California - the first state to ban smoking in restaurants and regulate tailpipe emissions - is a safe enough bet. So the sport’s supporters over the years have evolved into a battle-hardened network of grass-roots advocates with political connections, lobbying experience and a track record of legislative victories in Sacramento. And this month brought perhaps their biggest scare to date.

On this blustery Saturday morning, they gathered outside the campaign headquarters of the bill’s sponsor, Assembly member Kevin McCarty, as he hosted an event to launch his campaign for Sacramento mayor. (Through a spokesperson, McCarty declined to comment on the record for this story.) As his volunteers streamed through the parking lot and into the barren office to pick up pamphlets and lawn signs, they passed the protesters waving American flags and signs that read:

“I love to play, don’t take it away”

“I’m Pro Choice! No on 734”

“Kevin Didn’t Get Play Time”

“McCarty More Like McFarty”

The kids on the sidewalk cheered each honk from cars expressing solidarity, while their parents looked on behind them, huddling beneath umbrellas.

“Who can tell me if I can or can’t let my kids do something?” said Jeannett Diez, president of a local youth football team and mother to three sons who have played the sport from a young age, including an 11-year-old currently in the program. “The thought of [my youngest son] not being able to have that opportunity, it makes me cry.”

To the parents who sign up their young children for youth tackle football, the violent components that have spurred calls for its ban are the same elements at the root of their belief that the game’s rewards outweigh its dangers. It’s the repetitive collisions that, as an expanding body of research has shown, increase the risk of long-term brain damage. But those collisions also instill a spirit of resilience, camaraderie and self-confidence unmatched in any other available extracurricular activity, these parents say.

“You really have to trust the guy next to you,” Diez said. “It goes beyond just the field.”

For all the disagreements, the sport’s proponents and opponents align on a single idea central to the debate: Football is exceptional - special enough to single out for prohibition, or to protect at all costs.

“The discipline you learn and the sacrifice and the circumstances that surround tackle football emphasize certain traits that can’t be replicated in the same way that other sports teach,” said Tom Lackey, an Assembly member who represents Kern County in central California.

Since the dawn of the sport’s brain-injury crisis more than a decade ago, every proposal around the country to ban tackle football for younger children has fallen flat, as efforts to address the game’s dangers have instead focused on implementing rules to make it safer.

McCarty first introduced a bill seeking to ban youth tackle football in 2018. That proposal inspired Earhart and fellow youth football supporter Steve Famiano to organize a political campaign to defend the sport. They founded the Save Youth Football coalition, rallying coaches and parents across the state, contacting local lawmakers, and holding protests that drew families to Sacramento from across northern California.

Even as more scientific evidence revealed the harm tackle football caused, there wasn’t much appetite among lawmakers to ban youth football. The committee chair at the time, Kansen Chu, pulled the bill without taking it to a vote.

Working with Assembly member Jim Cooper, a Democrat from southern Sacramento County, Save Youth Football coalition members helped craft an alternative to a ban. They proposed limitations on full-contact practices, mandatory concussion-awareness training and requiring medical professionals at every game. The California Youth Football Act passed in 2019, and Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed it, putting the state at the forefront of the sport’s shifting safety regulations.

Famiano said he thought that was the end of the fight.

Then, last year, McCarty introduced another proposal to ban youth tackle football. It immediately failed, too, not even reaching a committee vote. But this year, Mike Gipson, a Democrat from Gardena, took over as committee chair. At the committee’s first meeting last week, Gipson held a hearing and a vote.

At the hearing, a doctor recounted studies that showed that playing tackle football at a young age increases the probability of cognitive impairment and depression. A mother told the story of how the consequences of football’s violence had derailed and prematurely ended the life of her son. McCarty listed the retired professional football players who have publicly declared that they wouldn’t let their kids play tackle football before high school. He likened his proposal to regulations on seat belts, guns and tobacco.

“There’s irreversible damage to kids’ brains that is totally unnecessary,” said McCarty, a Democrat who represents Sacramento and its northern and eastern suburbs. “There’s no real safe way to play tackle football.”

Meanwhile, Earhart and Famiano had heard about the bill’s resurrection and “re-energized” their coalition. More than 50 youth football supporters, around half of them young kids wearing their football jerseys, attended the hearing, lining up at the microphone to express their opposition.

The committee voted along partisan lines, 5-2 in favor.

“This bill deserves to be discussed and debated by the full body on the floor of the state assembly,” Gipson said.

If it passed in the Assembly, and then passed in the Senate, the bill would then reach Newsom’s desk for final approval.

One of the two votes in the committee against the bill came from Lackey, the Republican assembly member from Kern County. In his office hangs a towel promoting his district’s local high school football team, the Boron Bobcats, a regular contender in the state playoffs.

Lackey said he worried the bill would become a partisan issue with the potential to catch a wave of support in a state legislature where 78 percent of members are Democrats.

“Their intentions are noble. They’re trying to prevent tragedy, but it’s an unrealistic approach,” he said. “Right now it’s starting with under-12, and I think that’s the first step, and then there’ll be the next step and the next step, and before we know it, tackle football will not be a part of our culture.”

But even in deep blue California, football’s hold remains strong. At the Saturday morning protest, families described the sport in reverent terms.

“It’s more than just tackle football; it’s a family,” said Janessa Fields, whose 10-year-old son, Andre, plays for a team in Placer County, a 45-minute drive from Sacramento.

Daniel Robinson, who coaches a team in Vacaville, said his own experience playing youth tackle football “changed my life so much,” introducing him to lifelong friends, getting him in better physical condition and building his confidence through the rigors of its violence. “I just wanna make sure it’s not taken away from these kids.”

Growing up in the Inglewood section of Los Angeles in the 1990s, Courtney Brown had grown up envisioning football as “a chance to get out of the neighborhood,” he said.

It was the sport that offered the most college scholarships. Brown got a full-ride, graduated from Sacramento State, and now operates a real estate contracting firm, as well as several other entrepreneurial endeavors.

“It’s not just about football,” he said. “It’s about the aftereffect of football.”

His 15-year-old son, Ceyean, started playing at 5 years old and now considers football “my whole life.” He said he dreamed of getting a college scholarship to play Division I football.

“When I’m not playing football, life can be depressing. It brings me peace,” Ceyean said. “If I didn’t play football, I don’t know if I’d care about my grades as much.”

The chance to send their kids to college for free hovered in the front of parents’ minds. Jeannett Diez, the youth football team president, and her husband, Martin, a high school football coach, expressed concern that a ban on the sport for younger kids would set the state back in the nationwide competition for college recruitment.

After two hours, the protesters began to make their way to their cars, with enough time to get home to catch the opening game of the NFL playoffs. “Thank you for letting me protest with you,” one boy said to Earhart as they shook hands.

The protesters planned to meet again in four days, for a rally on the steps of the state capitol. More than 100 people were expected to show up. State legislators, doctors and academics who support youth football would speak at a lectern in front of rows of children and parents holding signs. A cluster of news cameras would broadcast the message around the state and the country.

But hours before the capitol rally even kicked off Wednesday, the bill was already dead. Gov. Newsom announced that he would veto AB734 if the legislature passed it, scoring another victory for the sport’s supporters.

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