The Debate Over 7-on-7 Football
Modern 7-on-7 football has its roots in flag football, a non-contact (theoretically) hybrid of tackle football, the derivation originating on military bases during World War II as a means of recreation for service personnel, evolving by the 1960s and 1970s into an activity often incorporated into middle school and high school physical education curricula and intramural programs, along with frequent use as a drill during practice by scholastic and collegiate football teams.
In the 1980s and 1990s, loosely organized, offseason 7-on-7 competitions began to spring up in Texas, California and Florida, eventually expanding into more formally structured leagues and championship tournaments across the country. Modern 7-on-7 distills football down to a single element – the passing game – with 20-minute to 30-minute games played on a 40-yard field with no blocking, tackling or running the ball, and a quarterback who, after the snap, has four seconds to throw to a receiver who is downed by a one-hand-touch from a defender.
The Texas State 7-on-7 Organization (a private organization not associated with the Texas University Interscholastic League) held the first 7-on-7 state championship in 1998 with the sport evolving by 2019 into 128 teams in three divisions at the title level, culled from 1,000-plus teams and 15,000-plus participants in statewide pool play, with the Division I state championship being won by a squad from A&M Consolidated High School, 37-31, over an arch-rival team from Southlake Carroll High School.
In 2007, Adidas sponsored the first 7-on-7 National Championship and in April 2019, University of Alabama five-star recruit Bryce Young of Mater Dei High School in California, projected as Alabama’s likely starter in 2020 following Tua Tagovailoa’s early exit to the NFL, led his Premium Sports 7-on-7 team to the national title in the 32-team finals (out of 4,000-plus teams and 60,000- plus participants in nationwide pool play) at 65,890-seat Raymond James Stadium, home venue of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Supporters of 7-on-7 argue that it allows players at skill positions such as quarterback, wide receiver, tight end and defensive back to sharpen their skills and, despite NCAA rules prohibiting college coaches from directly scouting games and tournaments, increase player exposure to college recruiters through the extensive network of competition videos posted online via social media, state level organizations running competitions and corporate sponsors financially supporting the sport.
Critics of 7-on-7 counter that it creates the equivalent of many of the same challenges that have plagued AAU basketball, including exposing players to non-school coaches who in some cases might best be characterized as street agents, and promoting an attitude among athletes of individualism as opposed to a sports ethos focused on team. Detractors also argue that the structure of 7-on- 7 is problematic for many state high school associations in their evaluation of prior-contact violations for football transfers between high schools and that the sport provides a potential framework for underclassmen to be recruited by or steered to certain high schools.
Foremost among the criticisms of 7-on-7 is that many of the non-school coaches overseeing teams do not have the sport-specific backgrounds, certifications and resources necessary to safely administer the activity and protect the health and well-being of players. Although no tackling is allowed, the incidental contact common in 7-on-7 results in many high-speed collisions as multi-ple athletes converge on the same spot to make a play and athletes routinely hit their heads hard on another player or the ground, along with sustaining the full range of injuries typical to football such as joint and ligament damage to the knees, ankles, hips and shoulders, in addition to suffering various broken bones.
The overriding concern is that those running 7-on-7 programs lack the training to fulfill the wide range of duties owed to young athletes such as specific supervision, proper technique instruction, warnings, safe playing environment, protective athletic equipment, evaluation of players for injuries and incapacities, enforcement of proper return-to-action protocols following injuries, provision of immediate medical assistance, activation of emergency medical response plans, matching and equating players for safe participation, and provision of safe transportation – duties regarding which school-employed coaches and athletic personnel receive extensive training and thus presumably have the sport-specific knowledge to safely administer the activity.
Liability Issues and Evolving Safety Regulations
On May 26, 2018, Brett Green, Jr., a safety playing in a state-qualifying tournament for a team composed of players from his high school, Arlington (Texas) Lamar, sustained an injury typical of those suffered by players in 7-on-7. Jumping to intercept a pass, his head collided first with a teammate’s shoulder and then with the ground as he fell. The players in the tournament wore no protective headgear or pads, with the only form of protective athletic equipment in use being cleats and mouthpieces.
Green Jr. was knocked unconscious by the two blows, the first to his temple and the second to the right side of his head. He was airlifted to a hospital where he would undergo surgery to relieve bleeding and swelling in his brain and spend two weeks recovering from his injuries. Even after his release, he suffered ongoing headaches, dizziness, blurred vision and other indicia of a severe concussion and underwent additional eye surgery and extensive physical therapy.
Although 7-on-7, touch and flag football players may suffer fewer major-impact blows to the head than tackle football players, “when you have kids running really fast,” said Stefan Duma, the Virginia Tech engineering professor who leads the university’s widely recognized football helmet-testing program, “bare head-tohead or (head to other body parts or the ground) collisions can be a high impact event.”
In a study published in July 2019 by researchers at the University of Georgia, the data showed a high incidence of blows to the head in touch or flag football from collisions with other players or the ground.
“It’s very clear that kids are falling down on almost every play,” concluded Robert C. Lyndall, a co-author of the peer-reviewed, academic paper. “The idea that there is no contact at all is fairly naïve. The brain doesn’t care if it’s intentional contact or not.”
In response to the traumatic brain injury suffered by Brett Green, Jr., and others like it across the 7-on-7 landscape nationwide, in January 2019, the Texas State 7on7 Organization passed a rule mandating the use by players beginning in the 2020 season of soft-shell, cap-style helmets with at least a four-or-five-star rating in Virginia Tech’s headgear rankings. The Texas organization’s press release announcing implementation of the helmet rule emphasized that setting a standard using the Virginia Tech protocol was necessary because the headband-style protections already being worn by some 7-on-7 players gives athletes a false sense of security that they are protected against concussions.
Aspinall v. Murrieta Valley Unified School District
In March 2018, in Aspinall v. Murrieta Valley Unified School District, a California Court of Appeals refused to overturn a lower court jury determination in favor of a school district and football coach in a case in which a player sustained a severe concussion, resulting in permanent brain damage and other health problems related to a traumatic brain injury. William Aspinall was participating in a 7-on-7 tournament held during a spring semester physical education course required for all members of the Murrieta High School football team which was taught by the junior varsity football coach. Players wore cleats, but not helmets or pads, and were instructed to play two-hand touch, avoid physical play and to “only go at half or quarter speed.”
However, according to the court’s written opinion, the coach “knew the participants would be aggressive, competitive and going full speed” and the games became “brutal and very physical” and “participants were tackling, fighting, trash-talking and getting hurt left and right.” As the sole supervisor for more than 60 participants in the class and tournament, the coach was unable to control the high level of contact during play and Aspinall suffered his injury when he and a teammate made head-to-head contact when they collided at full speed while trying to intercept a pass. Aspinall sued the district and the coach for negligence in failing to fulfill the duties of supervision, proper technique instruction, protective athletic equipment, evaluation of players for injuries, and immediate medical response.
In an outlier of a ruling, the appellate court upheld a lower court jury finding that the defendants were indeed negligent, but also concluding that 1) based on technicalities in the legal doctrine of causation, Aspinall had not met the burden of proof in showing that his injuries resulted from the defendants’ lack of reasonable care; and 2) based on technicalities in the legal doctrine of assumption of risk, Aspinall had voluntarily agreed to the dangers of sustaining his injuries. The appellate court also upheld the exclusion by the lower court of expert testimony to the jury that would have established the need for helmets in 7-on-7, the need for a greater number of supervisors for an activity with 60+ participants, and other failings of reasonable care in the operation of the physical education class and tournament.
Despite the district and coach escaping liability, the standard of practice illustrated by the case is clear – to best ensure the safety of student-athletes, athletic programs – including 7-on-7 competitions – must implement strategies to fulfill all of the categories of duties owed to the young people with responsibility for whose well-being schools and coaches are charged.
Lee Green is an attorney and Professor Emeritus at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, where for 30 years he taught courses in sports law, business law and constitutional law. He is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee. He may be contacted at Lee.Green@BakerU.Edu.