Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith would ban tackle football for youngest players

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra

If Gene Smith had his way, cute kids swimming in oversized football helmets would be grabbing flags instead of pulling at their facemasks.

The Ohio State athletic director said Tuesday that if he were sports czar for a day, he would ban any child under age 13 from playing organized tackle football.

“We’re putting kids at risk, which is why I embrace flag football,” Smith said upon release of a national sports study on youth sports in Franklin County. “I don’t know why we’re having them tackle at 7 or 8 years old. I don’t get it.”

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Smith obviously is not against all tackle football — there is this thing called Ohio State football he warms to — but stressed that science has helped evolve his thinking.

“We have information today that we didn’t have two decades ago, so why not adjust?” he said, referencing studies showing that early-age concussions have long-term impact on cognitive ability.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith is among those who believe that youths who play football should refrain from playing tackle football before age 13.

Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center has published three studies since 2015 that reached similar conclusions: Adults who played tackle football as children were more likely to deal with emotional and cognitive challenges later in life.

“The repetitive head contact and brain rattle over time impacts you,” Smith said, adding that sports such as soccer, in which concussions happen fairly regularly, also contribute to brain issues later.

“When you’re that young of an age, and an offensive or defensive lineman, you have to have unbelievable teachers and instructors” to make sure blocking techniques are taught safely, Smith said. “The reality is we don’t have that. We have a lot of great, young coaches, but at the end of the day some aren’t.”

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Smith thinks football fundamentals can be learned by playing flag football, then tackling skills taught later.

“It just feels like we should do everything we can to embrace flag football,” he said. 

But Smith admitted moving from tackling to “touch” football will require legislation.

“The reality is that tackle football is so embedded in our culture that you have to have laws (to change it),” he said. “That’s a battle for somebody younger.”

Despite statistics showing a decline in middle school and high school football participation, Smith is not worried the sport is going away — at Ohio State or otherwise.

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The central Ohio youth sports study released on Tuesday confirms Smith’s thinking. In the survey, far fewer boys reported having played tackle football (36%) than basketball (71%) and soccer (60%), but tackle football was the No. 2 sport that boys said they most want to try. Black youth were twice as likely to have played football and three times as likely to want to try football than white youth.

“The sport is going to be a sport,” Smith said of tackle football. “It’s still desirable. Athletes are still going to be inspired to play and recruited to play.”

What may change, he hopes, is that parental concern over tackle football leads younger athletes into other opportunities.

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“What this may do, in an ancillary way, is open other sports. Students might be encouraged to play tennis or lacrosse or swim at a younger age,” he said.

Not that football lacks value. The central Ohio youth survey, conducted by the Aspen Institute, found that football players were more likely to participate in sports or physical activity (90%) than males who don’t play football (74%). And football players (13%) were less likely to list social issues — i.e., the child not feeling welcome in sports — as barriers to play sports than non-football males (22%)

“But flag football still inspires you to play contact football at the next level,” Smith said. “It’s a heck of a sport.”