Willie McGinest speaks out against Massachusetts bill to ban youth tackle football

The former Patriots linebacker says "kids of all ages" should have the opportunity to participate.

FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 29:  Willie McGinest is inducted into the New England Patriots hall of fame during a game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on October 29, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Willie McGinest is inducted into the New England Patriots Hall of Fame during a 2015 game against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. –Jim Rogash / Getty Images

Willie McGinest says he stands with those protesting a new Massachusetts bill that would ban tackle football for all children until after seventh grade.

“I love the game of football and want kids of all ages to have the opportunity to participate in it,” the former New England Patriots linebacker said in a statement released Tuesday evening by the NFL’s communications department.

The statement came hours after dozens — including fellow former Patriots linebacker Andre Tippett — rallied Tuesday outside the State House in Boston in opposition to the recent legislation to effectively ban any child “in grade seven or under” from participating in “organized tackle football,” amid mounting concerns about the dangers of repeated head trauma, particularly for young athletes, and evidence linking youth football to cognitive problems later in life. The bill would not place any restrictions on non-tackle football.

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McGinest, however, is a member of the NFL Legends Youth Advisory Committee, a league-backed group that is working to improve coaching and tackling techniques in high school and youth football leagues, rather than banning the sport outright at the lower levels.

The 12-year NFL veteran says that football provided a source of opportunity for him and can teach children about values like “accountability, teamwork, sportsmanship, discipline, and responsibility.”

“For me and the way I teach the game, football is not just about X’s and O’s,” the 47-year-old McGinest said Tuesday. “It instills foundational principles — principles that have guided and directed me during each important step of my life.”

A Boston University study of 246 deceased football players last year found that those who began playing tackle football before the age of 12 experienced cognitive, behavior, and mood symptoms “an average of 13 years earlier than those who started playing at age 12 or older.”

Youth football supporters argue that the sport is now safer than it has ever been due to new rules and “greater awareness.”

However, not all former players — or even former Patriots — agree that the sport is a risk worth taking at a young age.

“I beg of you, all parents to please don’t let your children play football until high school,” Nick Buoniconti, a 78-year-old former Miami Dolphins and Patriots linebacker, who now struggles with the symptoms of likely chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative brain disease associated with contact sports and military service, said last year as part of a Boston-based effort to promote flag football for those under 14.

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“I made the mistake starting tackle football at 9 years old,” Buoniconti said. “Now, CTE has taken my life away. Youth tackle football is all risk with no reward.”

Massachusetts isn’t the first state where legislation has been introduced to ban youth tackle football. State lawmakers in California, Illinois, Maryland, New York, and New Jersey have also introduced bills to ban tackle football for children under 12 years old (or in the case of Maryland, below high school level). However, none have gotten close to becoming law.