Honor John Madden’s legacy by making football safer for kids


As the tributes across the country have made clear over the past week, few people impacted the game of football and its role in the national psyche like John Madden. As a coaching, broadcasting and video game legend, Madden touched generations of fans with his passion for the game.

But there is one area where Madden’s impact on the game wasn’t felt nearly as much as it should have been: making it safer for the next generation of players. We can honor his legacy by correcting that now.

As the game’s impact on brain health became widely acknowledged in recent decades, Madden spoke out forcefully against young kids playing tackle football, including sparring with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell over the issue in 2014.

“I’m a firm believer that there’s no way that a 6-year-old should have a helmet on and learn a tackling drill,” Madden said at the time. “There’s no way. Or a 7-year-old or an 8-year-old. They’re not ready for it. Take the helmets off kids.”

A year earlier, Madden had said on his KCBS radio segment that tackle football should not be played until high school, advocating for flag football at younger ages. He predicted that one day society would “laugh” at the idea of letting young kids with helmets tackle each other.

Sadly, the Hall of Fame Raiders coach died Dec. 28 without seeing that prediction come true. Despite the fact that other NFL legends such as Brett Favre have also lobbied for an end to youth tackling, we seem to be moving in the wrong direction. Youth leagues throughout the country continue to embrace tackle football, deceiving parents about the significant risks. The entire issue of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and the devastation it has inflicted on scores of players seems to have largely faded from national attention.

This despite the fact that pediatricians, scientists and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned of the long-term effects on developing brains from repeated blows to the head. A Boston University study published in 2018 found that those who began tackle football before age 12 experienced symptoms of cognitive, behavioral and mood problems an average 13 years earlier than those who started playing at age 12 or older.

It should come as no surprise that someone who loved the game as much as Madden felt so strongly about this issue. He knew as well as anyone the toll the game had taken on players he coached, such as Ken Stabler, who suffered from the effects of CTE before he died. And players he coached against, such as Mike Webster, whose descent into dementia and death at age 50 brought the NFL’s concussion crisis to light. And as a proud, caring grandfather, Madden knew the importance of placing the safety of kids first.

In 2019, the Safe Youth Football Act, introduced in the state Legislature by Assembly members Kevin McCarty and Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher to prohibit tackle football for kids under the age of 12, died in the California Legislature in large part because of a backlash by those who chose to ignore the inconvenient truth that Madden readily acknowledged.


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