The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Jason Hartman holds his 5-year-old son, Hudson, at a rally in Sacramento. (Hector Amezcua/AP)
10 min

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 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.”

Two days earlier, a bill to ban tackle football for kids under 12 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 — affects where its existence is threatened most. And in a state as big and diverse as California, the shift is playing out unevenly. The tackle football 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 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 as their parents looked on, 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 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.

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