California Restricts Full-Contact Youth Football for Safety, But Will It Work?

emory university professor roy benaroch, m.d., weighs in

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

California has limited full-contact youth football practice to an hour a week, NBC San Diego reported. The move aims to reduce brain and bodily injury to young athletes. Is it the right solution? The Great Courses investigates.

Youth football coach with a young player on the sidelines
As lawmakers attempt to protect youth from concussions and other injuries, California legislation restricts the amount of time for full-contact youth football practices. Photo by Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law last week restricting full-contact youth football practices to 30 minutes twice per week, according to NBC San Diego. The new law will also require a medical professional to attend every game, where they will have the authority to pull injured players out of the game. This legislation owes in part to the rising concern of long-term injuries to the brain and body that have been connected to football, including concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). But is it the solution parents and young athletes need? An exclusive interview with Roy Benaroch, M.D., sheds light on the subject.

The Reality of California’s New Law

To what extent is this new law the answer the public has been looking for? “I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Dr. Roy Benaroch, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine. “The thinking is that young brains are more susceptible to damage because they’re still growing, but the entity of CTE is new—and long-term studies are lacking—so we don’t really have that long-term data, yet.”

Dr. Benaroch also pointed out that one unspoken benefit of the law is the awareness it will bring to the seriousness of sports injuries. “More and more parents are paying attention to this, schools are paying attention to this; there’s also the threat of lawsuits hanging over schools,” he said. “Having legislature say, ‘This is what’s safe’—that protects kids, but also municipalities. We know that concussions are bad and blows to the head are bad, but every district was going by the seat of their pants and coming up with their own guidelines; and, since this is a great big state it could become a model for other states and other places.”

Related Risks on the Field

CTE, which essentially bruises the outside of the brain due to repeated impacts of the brain hitting against the skull, is just one of the problems California’s youth football law could be reducing. Dr. Benaroch mentioned that another problem that gets far too little attention on the gridiron is heatstroke. “Kids become dehydrated quicker; they’re smaller,” he said. “I’ve ended up in the ICU with several young athletes with kidney failure, which is one potential outcome of heatstroke. Dehydration and heatstroke overlap—it’s a pretty big problem.” He also added pulled muscles and joint injuries to the list.

One additional provision of California’s new law is the total ban of off-season, full-contact practice. But is this overkill? “Statistically, more concussions occur during practice than play; practices tend to be much longer and more repetitive,” Dr. Benaroch said. “It’s a good idea insisting that athletes have an off-season without full-contact practice; they need that time off to heal.”

Other Solutions to Football Injuries

Dr. Benaroch emphasized that California’s new law is a good idea, but there are further steps that states could take to ensure football players’ safety. “What’s more effective is the people on the field—the coaches teaching young athletes how to tackle correctly and staying sensitive to the signs of traumatic brain injury as they occur on the field, that’s really the most important thing,” he said. “I think there needs to be funding for appropriate, well-done, long-term studies of the effects of these injuries. A lot of this seems like common sense, but it needs to be studied so that we can understand the best ways to protect the kids.”

At the same time, Dr. Benaroch was reluctant to give credit to pricey football helmets. “Sometimes concussion safety seems to center around helmets—parents’ groups donating to buy the best helmets, helmet companies coming in and doing presentations and saying, ‘You can buy our $300 or $600 helmets,’ but that’s not money well-spent—that’s just marketing,” he said. “Better helmets will do a better job at protecting kids’ scalps and faces, but they do not protect the brain.”

“Less rotational impact, fewer hits, safer play, that’s the way to protect the brain—technology won’t do it.”

Dr. Roy Benaroch contributed to this article. Dr. Benaroch is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine

Dr. Roy Benaroch contributed to this article. Dr. Benaroch is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. He earned his B.S. in Engineering at Tulane University, followed by his M.D. at Emory University.