ANDOVER — A bill before the Legislature that would prohibit younger football players from tackling failed to score any points at a forum Wednesday evening.
Pete Sullivan of Tewksbury, the father of an 11-year-old who has started playing tackle football, called the proposal “an attack on your parental rights.” The 30 or so parents, coaches and players gathered at Memorial Hall Library vigorously applauded that call.
“Call your legislators,” Sullivan said. The youth football forum was organized by state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover. Finegold assembled a “dream team” of retired NFL players and medical professionals, who questioned the validity of the research that has been cited by proponents of the bill.
Hall of Famer André Tippett, a legendary linebacker for the Patriots and Roman Oben, who played offensive tackle for the New York Giants, Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Diego Chargers, pointed out that there is a strong push at all levels of the game for certification of coaches.
Dr. Scott Sigman, an orthopedic surgeon at Lowell General Hospital and team physician at University of Massachusetts Lowell, said science and technology have resulted in better helmets. Oben, now vice president of youth and high school football for the NFL, said the manufacturers of helmets and other equipment employ scientists to make their products safer.
That was not the case a generation ago, Tippett and Oben noted.
Dr. Mark Lapp, an orthopedic spine surgeon and assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Tufts University, said stricter rules on what’s allowable in tackling have reduced concussions and other injuries.
“We are constantly replenishing our equipment,” said School Committee member Ted Teichert, an Andover Junior Football League coach.
The number of participants in the junior football program has dropped from 280 to around 85 or 90, he said. Many young people are playing flag football rather than real football, he said, because the former lacks tackling.
Actually, he pointed out, flag football can be dangerous when players are reaching and sometimes diving to get the flag from the opponent.
“We have people who believe in football,” said Andover High School head football coach E.J. Perry. Of 24 seniors on the 2018 team, 11 will be playing football in college, he said.
Andover High alumni have played at Brown, Boston College, Harvard and Penn State, among other schools, he said.
This past season, he said, three of his players had concussions. That’s not a bad number, according to Perry.
Both Perry and Teichert said basic techniques, such as keeping one’s head up, can prevent serious injuries.
“You take this game away, you take away educational opportunity,” Perry warned.
“Our brains are designed to take hits,” said Dr. Karen Postal, a clinical and pediatric neuropsychologist and clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School.
The bill sponsored by House Minority Leader Brad Jones, D-North Reading and Rep. Paul Schmid, D-Westport, calls for banning tackling from games played by seventh-graders and younger athletes. One of the studies cited by proponents of the bill calls for not letting younger children play football.
That study was “not well-controlled,” Postal said.
Tippett, executive director of community affairs for the New England Patriots, decried the “propaganda that football is bad.”
“I got lucky,” he said of his progression from high school to the University of Iowa to the NFL and finally the NFL Hall of Fame. His high school coach, Frank Verducci, “was my Vince Lombardi,” he said.
To this day, Tippett stays in touch with Verducci. During his visit to Andover, Tippett spoke at length with John Howard, a fellow University of Iowa Hawkeye and an Army infantry veteran of World War II.
Howard, who played soccer during his youth, said there shouldn’t be a problem with tackling “if it’s done right.”