NORTH TONAWANDA — The fight against a potential ban on youth tackle football is just heating up.
The Niagara Erie Youth Sports Association held its second youth football rally in three weeks, tabbed the “Rally Against the Ban,” Monday night at the Wurlitzer Building. A proposed law that would keep youths from playing tackle football before the age of 12 is being considered by the state legislature after Christopher Nowinski and the Concussion Legacy Foundation, through the Boston University School of Medicine, presented a study on the connection between concussions/chronic traumatic encephalopathy and youth football.
State lawmakers held a hearing on the proposed law back on Oct. 29 in New York City, and will discuss it again on Dec. 7.
NEYSA President Ray Turpin; state Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda; state Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls; Niagara County Legislature Majority Leader Randy Bradt, R-North Tonawanda; and Section VI football chair Ken Stoldt were all in attendance, with Turpin, Ortt and Morinello speaking.
Turpin oversees NEYSA, which allows its 17 member organizations to govern leagues across Western New York. He wanted to make sure that these parents, coaches, players, and cheerleaders have the information needed while joining the discussion.
One thing many don't realize, he said, is that youth cheerleaders could be affected here. According to Turpin, NEYSA is WNY's largest youth football league and cheerleading organization. With 80 football teams and 50 cheer teams, nearly 2,500 players and 450 coaches, the third-largest youth football/cheer organization in the state could be dramatically affected lawmakers come down with a ban.
"Initially, it would take away youth football. But it will, basically, pretty much decimate youth cheerleading," Turpin said, which he also believes could have a ripple effect that filters into the high school level.
"Unless they just go with a competition stage. At that point, you're getting kids that — maybe not the most athletically inclined kids — who would normally come out and cheer for their youth football team. But now, if you take away their youth football team — and again, this ban is for 12 and under, so you're talking tackle football wouldn't start until 13 years old, which is basically modified (or JV). ... Unless you're gonna come out and cheer for flag football, and I don't know if that's sustainable at that point.
"But if they take this away, other youth sports are soon to follow, because there is the documented evidence that football does have reports with concussions. But as does youth soccer, as does youth baseball, as does cheerleading, as does basketball."
Turpin pointed out the steps the organization has already taken to make it a safer game. This includes keeping kids within their age range with an unlimited weight rule; mandated Heads Up Football certifications for coaches, which inform coaches on concussions and heat and hydration awareness; shortened fields of play for the 5-to-9 age range; no special teams or logged score for 5-to-7 year olds; only free punt special teams plays for the 8-to-9 year olds; and the three-year update and review of equipment.
NEYSA has even provided situational training on cardiac arrest for coaches and equipped all 17 member organizations with automated external defibrillators.
All of this could be ignored for Nowinski's study, which has not been peer-reviewed and is coming from a foundation that has publicly admitted to having a vendetta against the National Football League (in hopes of stopping tackle football), according to Turpin. The CLF has compared playing youth tackle football to allowing kids to smoke cigarettes.
Turpin also talked about how the foundation is misleading as to who is dealing with CTE, which has been linked to dozens of former NFL players who have played football for 20 to 30 years, including their youth careers, when the old concussion protocol was in play. He said that the slogan of "when in doubt, sit 'em out" has been something the organization upholds, which he claims has led to only "0.005 percent of the injuries dealt with each season being head injuries."
CLF's mission has been disheartening for Turpin, he said, especially knowing how much financial backing and media exposure it wields to push such narratives. This is something that worries parents like Trista and Bobby Kennerknecht, who have three children playing youth football and a fourth that is a cheerleader. With Trista serving on the Niagara Wheatfield Athletic Association board and Bobby working with the youth as a coach, this ensuing battle is something they're more than tuned in to.
"(Our kids) love the football, they live for it. They wait for it all year," Trista said. "They work hard, they practice four days a week ... and then they're out there three days a week when school starts. ... We're in wrestling now, but we do all sports. But football is by far their favorite, so I don't know what we would do if they couldn't do it. It's like the all-American sport.
"I think people in the long run are gonna get hurt more when they get older, because they're not gonna have the experience. Their bodies are gonna be different when they're older, they're more flexible now. We do certain protocols to ensure their safety as it is, a lot of people don't know that, but we do.
Bobby Kennerknecht was in unison with his wife, agreeing that not allowing the youth to play now will effect them on the back end.
"I don't think it's right, I think it's better to prepare the kids at a younger age than an older age," Bobby said.
"For instance ... I've got some kids on the team that are only 50 pounds. ... Them getting hit by another 50-pound kid, at the age of 5 or 6, ain't gonna hurt as bad when they get older and they don't know how to play tackle football at 12 years old getting hit by a kid that weighs 180 pounds. So I'd rather them learn the sport at a younger age, where the kids ain't as fast, they're not tackling as hard as what they are at an older age.
"It's gonna make a lot of kids discouraged. I know every single kid on my team. I walk past my kids' room, they're all playing Fortnite together. They know each other (in the) offseason and in-season. For them to cancel it like that, it'd devastate these kids. They live for this sport."
For more from sports reporter Khari Demos, follow him on Twitter @riri_demos. Also, tune in to Khari as a guest on Tony Caligiuri's 'Inside High School Sports,' 10 a.m. Saturdays on WGR 550.