Carol Sente speaks with Chicago News about her sacked youth tackle football bill

State Rep. Carol Sente’s (D-Vernon Hills) proposal to ban children younger than 12 from playing tackle football in Illinois was sacked on Wednesday. Sente’s bill, titled the Dave Duerson Act, lacked the necessary amount of support to be called for vote. The House Mental Health Committee passed Sente’s bill by a vote of 11-9 on March 1. Sente, who won’t seek re-election in November, said that she might reintroduce the proposed state law this autumn. Sente dubbed the bill the Dave Duerson Act because she enjoyed watching the former Bears safety compete on the gridiron.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Duerson, a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time second-team All-Pro, helped the Bears maul the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX on January 26, 1986. Duerson, who the Bears took out of Notre Dame with the 64th pick in the 1983 NFL Draft, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest at the age of 50 in February 2011. Shortly before committing suicide, the 1987 NFL Man of the Year Award winner sent his family a text message requesting that neurologists examine his brain tissue.

Duerson’s kin proceeded to donate his brain to researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine. Approximately three months later, medical specialists at the private institution confirmed that Duerson suffered from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE, a rare condition linked to repetitive head trauma, can cause cognitive, physical and emotional difficulties.

Sente spoke with the Chicago News about the bill and provided an overview regarding its current state and future.

How did you come to this decision to hold the bill from the final House vote?

Passing this bill is an extremely important goal for me and so is educating as many parents as possible about the dangers of tackle football including starting too early in a child’s life and playing tackle football for too many years. While the primary goal of the bill was to pass it to protect children, a secondary goal was to use the debate to help elevate the conversation about the very real concerns about repeated subconcussive hits to the youth brain and its link to CTE. It became clear over the past 10 weeks that parents need more time to absorb the evidence that exists. This is cutting edge research that is evolving weekly. For example, the CDC released their first fact sheets on CTE for the public only last week. As the evidence reaches parents, I believe more individuals will delay when their child starts playing tackle football. If they don’t have options like flag football, I believe in time parents and youth will steer away from football entirely.

Why wouldn’t you just call it and see how the vote turns out?

I don’t see any value in calling a bill that does not have the required votes to pass. This is a quite standard approach among legislators and allows government to focus on the bills that may pass. As I’ve mentioned, I am proud that this bill is educating parents, and legislators, about the science, and over the next year I expect the bill will continue to gain supporters.

How many votes short are you of the 60 needed for passage?

I did not actually conduct a roll call on the bill to determine how many votes I had. I felt from the responses that I did get from some peers, that getting 60 votes in the House, finding a Senate sponsor and getting the Governor to sign it was not a viable option this year.

Couldn’t you have requested a deadline extension and kept working for the votes between now and May 31?

While I can ask for an extension at any time, the bill technically remains alive until December 31 and so the possibility remains open for me to renew the issue if additional science or information comes to light later this year, such as during fall veto session. New studies and developments continually surface in the area of CTE, so we will see what transpires.

What lesson(s) do you hope Illinoisans took from the debate over this issue this year?

I hope parents listened to the research, understood that this topic was about CTE not concussions, that we are not banning football, just tackle before age 12. There are so many other options for children to learn valuable life skills whether that is flag football, other sports, music, the arts, debate, etc. I hope they learned that children’s brains are particularly vulnerable. Their child will not come home with the same complaints or symptoms as when they have a concussion, but CTE will be doing it’s damage slowly and over time the longer their child plays tackle football. Rather than wait until the science is 100 percent conclusive before parents decide to wait for their child to play football, I hope parents will wait until the science can 100 percent prove that tackle football does NOT lead to CTE. Even in 2018, after decades of science, cigarette packages still say “can” cause cancer. Sadly, the topic of banning tackle football before age 12 feels just like big tobacco companies’ response to warnings of cancer.   I hope the NFL will not act like big tobacco and step up and take the lead or at least not be an obstacle. I hope youth football will somehow find a way where they could collectively come together to ban tackle before a certain age just like the US Soccer Federation banned headers before age 11 and US Hockey banned body checking before age 13.

What were the complaints against the bill that you thought were strongest, or that caused you to think you wouldn’t be moving forward on it this year?

The anger and vitriol of parents and coaches from other areas of the state made me realize that this would be a hard bill for some of my peers to support even if they were in favor or neutral on the bill topic. The most frequent argument made was deciding whether children should play tackle football before age 12 should be a parental decision. Parents spoke often about the valuable life skills that their children benefitted from. Coaches spoke often about the safety improvements made to the game within the past several years. Some medical practitioners pointed to an insufficient level of research. While I respect these comments, I do not agree with them.

What reasons did constituents give for opposing the bill, and were any arguments persuasive?

The most frequent arguments, and my rebuttals, are listed below.

  1. This is an NFL issue – This is an issue only for the small percentage of players that go on to play college and professional football.  Those that only play youth and/or high school will not experience these brain concerns.
    1. That is simply not true. CTE has been diagnosed in multiple high school football players, and in some who played as few as five years.
  1. Technology, training & protocols have changed – Helmets and equipment have greatly improved over the years, training techniques have changed like “HeadsUp” tackle so the game is much safer.
    1. The New York Times showed USA Football and NFL fraudulently marketed the purported benefits of HeadsUp. Even the best helmets do not significantly reduce CTE risk, and no training technique can remove the risk of head impact from tackling and blocking.
  1. Proper tackling technique needs to be trained early – Kids need proper training and learn techniques at a young age so they do not hurt themselves.
    1. There is no data to support this. The benefits of removing 2,000 to 5,000 head impacts by delaying tackle until 12 outweigh will likely outweigh any risks of a delayed start, if any are ever found.
  1. Kids that young (6-12 yrs.) don’t hit very hard – Young players “barely touch each other” or “fall into each other”.  They don’t engage in full, take down hits.
    1. Studies are clear that due to their Bobblehead-shaped bodies, children receive head impacts nearly as hard as college players.
  1. “My child has never had a concussion”
    1. HB 4341’s focus is entirely on subconcussive hits not concussions, which can’t be removed from an impact sport like tackle football.
  1. Other sports are more dangerous and have concussions too 
    1. While other sports have concussions, they tend to have fewer subconcussive hits and lower participation rates.  Other sports like USA Hockey & USA Soccer have banned body checking (under age 13) and headers (under age 11) for kids to prevent subconcussive & concussive hits.
  1. This a parental decision
    1. Although no one likes government intrusion, government has historically stepped in to protect children.  It has been done before by not using lead paint, having a minimum age for smoking (which is increasing in several communities), wearing seat belts, etc.
  1. Research linking tackle football to CTE or other degenerative brain issues is inconclusive
    1. Not according to the experts at the National Institutes of Health and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who are all on record that they believe the evidence is clear that CTE is caused by brain trauma.
  1. Nanny state – “What are you going to ban next? Let kids be kids.  We played tackle football and grew up fine.”
    1. I agree that we should let kids be kids, and encourage child-directed play. Tackle football is not that. Children could not invent plastic helmets.
  1. Flag football is more dangerous – “I’m aware of flag football leagues and the kids get all kinds of injuries.”  
    1. Not true, based on a poorly conducted study.
  1. My kid’s life changed due to tackle football– Parents speak about all the great life skills their child learned from tackle football like discipline, teamwork, etc.
    1. It might, but could they have learned those lessons without hundreds of head impacts?
  1. Don’t you have more important topics to address – “like the budget, gun control, opioids, etc.”
    1. As most legislators, I have the ability to focus on multiple issues at the same time. The issues mentioned are very important, as is children’s safety.
  1. Are you getting a kickback, setting yourself up for lobbying?
    1. No

Did you get a lot of negative feedback from people outside your district? Who were they, and how did you handle that?

Yes, I did. I actually only received one negative comment and that was from a constituent. From my District, I received a lot of support. There is a Facebook page against HB 4341, an online petition against the bill, and our office received hundreds of calls, emails, Messenger comments, FB comments, Twitter comments, etc. I tried to respond to some of the residents outside my district but the more I engaged, the more they challenged me and the nastier they got. Proponents from around the state and country also contacted me, but most of these individuals did not want to get involved publicly.

Did you consider some other path forward for this bill? Are you concerned not calling it for a vote will end any momentum you might have built this year?

No, this has always been a long game for me. Change in tackle football doesn’t come easy and started for me five years ago. I don’t think that not calling the bill this year ends its momentum. I think we built a great deal of momentum this year and educated a great many individuals. The interest in this topic has been overwhelming and we got our message out. Even if parents didn’t believe that this was a role of government, most of the editorial boards agreed the bill topic of not letting kids play tackle before age 12 was the right one. I believe that IF parents had all the information I had, they would make the same choice.

In terms of another path forward, I didn’t believe that any viable alternatives were suggested. Additional coach training or signing a release form doesn’t protect children’s brains in a way that engaging more people with the research does.

Since you’re retiring next January, how do you expect this issue to move forward in the future?

There are many ways for me to stay involved in this topic. I have other peers who are interested in carrying this issue forward should I not complete it during my term.


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