Amid debate over youth football bill, academy official says sport's safety has improved
People advocating for an Illinois House bill that would ban children younger than 12 from joining organized tackle football teams are going after the wrong sport, the national recruiting director for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Academy said in a recent interview
"There are very few things that a kid can do today that can be any safer than football," George Garcia, who is also president of Joliet Steelers Youth Football & Cheer, said during a Will County Gazette telephone interview. "You can't put them on a trampoline in the backyard, you can't let them rollerskate down the block, you can't let them skateboard down the block, you can't let them play basketball or baseball or anything else that has a lower concussion rate than football."
More kids suffer a season-ending injury while rollerblading or "fooling around at something during the summer" than during a football game, Garcia said. "I will tell you that in my 17 years as a coach, I've had more kids out for the season after getting hurt on a trampoline than I've had from being injured in a football game," he said
And yet proponents of House Bill 4341, known as the CTE Prevention Act, which aims to prevent the brain trauma disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, are going after football by advocating a blanket ban on youngsters playing organized tackle forms of the sport.
HB 4341 is sponsored by Rep. Carol Sente (D-Vernon Hills), who is seeking re-election for another term in her 59th House District seat. The 59th District is in Lake and Cook counties.
This week, the legislation spawned a grassroots social media-based rally of youth football supporters from across the state who gathered in Springfield and have started a petition against the bill.
The bill's sponsors and supporters seem to be uninformed about how different football is compared to decades ago, Garcia said.
"The game has changed," he said. "It has changed for the betterment of the kid and the adult player."
Players today are trained in tackle techniques that don't involve helmet-on-helmet contact and at the pro-level, the violence that once led to severe head injury is strongly discouraged, Garcia said.
"Even in the NFL, you can barely tackle a guy now without getting a penalty, without getting fined," he said.
The NFL also has spent "millions and millions of dollars" on safety, training and coaching, much of which has filtered down to the local youth organizations, Garcia said. As an example, Garcia referred to USA football certification required for coaches that includes instruction on health and safety, in addition to tackle, game fundamentals and how best to fit sports equipment.
"If you don't go through the USA courses, you don't coach football," Garcia said.
Modern coaches also don't train kids with the NFL in mind because only a very few of them will get there, Garcia said.
"Maybe one out of every 10,000 kids may make it to the NFL, which means one out of every 10,000 kids equals the ability of those players that these studies are about," Garcia said.
For the rest, leadership and life skills learned through the game are more enduring, and it offers something to children who lack that from other influences in their lives, which they could lose without football, Garcia said. "Probably 60 percent, if not more, of the kids who play the sport come from underprivileged families," Garcia said.
Many of those kids don't have a father figure in their lives, Garcia said.
"And so, for them, I'm Dad," he said.