Russell Davis says he’s a huge football fan and hopes the Oakland Raiders come to his hometown of Las Vegas. NFL players are adults making decisions, he says, about how to “balance the risks and rewards” of the game.
That’s not the case with tackle football for kids even in high school, and he’s seeking to avoid that decision being made for them.
Davis is running for the Clark County (Nev.) School Board of Trustees on a platform that would ban tackle football from the fifth-largest school district in the nation beginning in the 2017 season. He is believed to be the first school board candidate in the country to run on banning football.
“This decision doesn’t come lightly because I am a fan of football,” Davis told USA TODAY Sports. “High school football in the small town in Nevada where I grew up was the biggest thing to do on a Friday night. It pains me, but I believe it’s the right thing to do. …
“I believe the human brain is not designed to play football. The brain does not have an airbag between the brain and the skull. There is no equipment to protect the brain and especially the developing brain.”
Davis’ proposal also calls for banning heading in soccer and instituting concussion protocol training for all coaches and staff involved in athletics. He also said the district’s teams in all sports will not play private schools in Clark County or public or private schools outside the county that do not follow the district’s standards for safety and concussion management.
Rather than a traditional campaign website, his site is concussiongate.org. He said he came to his position after years of reading research on the subject and coaching soccer.
Liberty High (Henderson) coach Rich Muraco said he understands that concussions and the long-term effects of CTE at the professional level are a “hot topic” but said Nevada is “one of the leaders in the nation when it comes to concussion prevention and treatment.” He pointed to the state using ImPact testing and changes being made in how the game is taught.
“Either he’s just trying to get publicity or doesn’t have sound basis in being a school board member,” Muraco said. “There are way bigger issues to being a school member than canceling high school football — graduation rates, money for teachers, money for facilities and the list goes on and on.”
Muraco said his team hardly ever goes full contact in practice.
“We’ve taken steps to insure the safety of the kids as far as the equipment that they have, the helmets are way safer than 10, 15, 20 years ago,” he said. “The way we teach tackling and the way we run our practices are different. We hardly ever go 100% live in practice. We go more with ‘thud’ and teach kids to get their head out of the tackle. We’ve gone to the rugby-style tackling that Pete Caroll has advocated with the Seattle Seahawks.”
Regardless of the result of the election, Davis is helping arrange meetings between the Dave Duerson Athletic Safety Fund, named for the former NFL player who committed suicide and was found to have CTE, and Clark County officials. The fund, with support from Purify Power, is looking to donate $973,000 to each school in the county for Concussion Goggles that simulate the symptoms of a concussion and are used as part of an educational curriculum to explain what steps to take if a player suffers a concussion or brain injury. The school district has not accepted the gift, pending further meetings.
“I am committed to making sure that lightning doesn’t strike twice and that another family is impacted like ours,” said Michael Duerson, Dave’s brother. “All concussions don’t end in CTE, but concussions at a young age can be devastating enough to alter one’s ability to work and to be a contributor to society because of the severity of the concussion that shows up later in life.”
Davis has been a county employee in Clark County for 18 years and now works in the county’s Public Works. This is not his first foray into politics. He lost in a bid for state Senate in 1998.
Davis said he has had focus groups hear his pitch and they have responded across the gamut, including those who suggested he run on other issues and then bring up the football ban once he’s elected and other who suggest he’s crazy. The District C primary is June 14. Davis is running against four other candidates. If a candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, he or she wins the seat; if not, the top two will have an election in the fall.
“Some of the groups we talked to are upset and other groups when you talk to them, they understand. People will say, ‘No, I wouldn’t let my kid play football.’ ” he said. “This community is going to go through a good debate on this issue and I think a good public debate on this issue is needed. It’s time to move this from the medical arena and out into the public arena and include teachers, administrators at school district and the parents of kids playing sports.”
Davis has a 14-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son who play soccer and he has told his children not to head the ball, pursuant to the USA Soccer ban against heading in youth soccer.
“Soccer is different than football – football is a collision sport,” he said. “You can address some of this stuff in soccer. In football, I don’t believe you can address it at all. I don’t think there is any tackling format or equipment that will protect the human brain.”
The Duerson fund supports flag football until age 14 and then tackle, a similar standard to other organizations including advocacy group Practice Like Pros. Earlier this month, the Center for Disease Control said it was beginning an examination of tackling in youth football and asked experts to help identify the age groups most at risk.
Terry O’Neil, the co-founder and CEO of Practice Like Pros, said the answer is not banning the game but changing practice protocols. He said 66% of the concussions in high school football happen in practice vs. just 3% of NFL concussions last season coming in practice.
“We don’t believe the game is safer than it ever was,” he said. “The game is risky, the game is dangerous. If you take the practice field risk management out of it, it becomes a manageable proposition for administration and the players.”
Davis also recognizes that detractors will suggest this is another example of the wussification of American youth.
“My response to that: ‘Educate yourselves. Read and do research,’ ” he said. “I’m perfectly fine with football being played by adults when adults can make their own decision. When it is about protecting the safety and welfare of our children, I don’t believe taxpayer money should be spent playing a collision sport like football. I’d ask people not to base their judgment on emotion. Have a serious conversation with yourself on your position on this issue.”