SPRINGFIELD — Illinois children could not play tackle football until age 12 under a plan a House committee endorsed Thursday after hearing personal tales of head trauma and its link to the brain disease known as CTE.
The Mental Health Committee advanced the bill named for Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bears defensive back who committed suicide in 2011 at age 50 but left his brain intact to be studied for signs of what turned out to be chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
"My father, after his football career, went from a Harvard-educated, successful businessman, to a shadow of his former self," Duerson's son, Tregg, who like his father played football at Notre Dame, told the committee. "He became an individual who struggled with bankruptcy, urges toward physical assault and depression."
CTE is a dementia-like degenerative disease characterized by memory loss, violent urges or moods, depression and other cognitive dysfunction. Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler who now heads the Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation, noted it was first identified in boxers and, beyond the gridiron, affects athletes in other contact sports and is routinely seen in combat veterans.
Often blamed on concussions, CTE appears more closely associated with repeated blows to the head that are "part of the routine play of tackle football," Nowinski said. The brain feels no pain and buffering nerve-lining isn't fully developed until age 21, he and his colleague, Robert Stern of Boston University, told the committee.
The aim of state Rep. Carol Sente's bill is to delay the trauma. The Vernon Hills Democrat explained her measure would "protect childrens' brains and protect the future of football."
Opponents question whether the plan is an overreach and whether limiting tackle football would prevent or reduce instances of CTE.
Duerson, who started playing tackle football at about age 10 and spent 11 years in the NFL, shot himself in the chest to spare his brain for examination. CTE can only be diagnosed after death, said Stern, a professor of neurology. He also predicted that scientists within five years will be able to identify the illness before death.
The problem is, Stern said, children at risk now can't wait for a definitive diagnostic test. He noted that laws keep alcohol and tobacco from children and lead paint was banned without precise knowledge of how much lead is toxic to children.
"Yet we drop our kids off at a large field where they put on plastic helmets and facemasks and hit their heads against one another and the ground hundreds of times a season," Stern said.
The legislation narrowly won passage to a House floor debate. "No" votes came from several lawmakers who complained that confusion over committee scheduling kept away several opponents who had indicated they wanted to testify.
Dr. Cynthia LaBella, sports medicine director at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago, submitted written testimony arguing there is no evidence that eliminating tackle football would prevent CTE. Lurie Hospital is taking no position on the legislation's merits but urges lawmakers to consider alternatives to prohibiting traditional youth football.
"Injuries are more likely to occur when improper and illegal technique, such as spear tackling, is used," LaBella wrote. "As such, efforts should be made to improve the teaching of proper tackling technique and enforce existing rules."
The bill is HB4341.