By Ken Reed
Dr. Bennet Omalu is the forensic neuropathologist that brought chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and its potentially dire consequences, to the nation’s attention.
Omalu is played by Will Smith in the upcoming movie Concussion. He is the doctor who took on the NFL and won.
When it comes to CTE, the country’s focus has been on the NFL and its concussion problem. That’s certainly understandable. The NFL is the most popular sport in the United States and when it is embroiled in billion dollar lawsuits, the nation takes notice.
Unfortunately, all the attention on brain trauma in the NFL has taken attention away from the area that most needs our attention: youth and high school football. There are thousands more youth and high school football players in this country than there are football players in the NFL. More importantly, the athletes in the NFL are adults. Thanks to Omalu and a few others they are now aware of the dangers to their brains from playing football. These adults are free to make whatever decision they wish when it comes to participating in the game of football.
On the other hand, youth and high school players are minors who have not reached the age of consent. The decision about whether or not they play football is made by their parents.
Omalu believes that should change.
“It is our moral duty as a society to protect the most vulnerable of us,” wrote Omalu in a New York Times op-ed this week.
“The human brain becomes fully developed at about 18 to 25 years old. We should at least wait for our children to grow up, be provided with the information and education on the risk of play, and let them make their own decisions. No adult, not a parent or a coach, should be allowed to make this potentially life-altering decision for a child.”
After reviewing the research on cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption, we’ve enacted laws to keep children under 18 (or in some cases 21) from smoking or drinking alcohol for health and safety reasons. Most Americans think those laws are no-brainers. But when looking at the growing mound of research regarding the negative impact of brain trauma from high-impact sports, we turn our heads. It appears to be a case of societal avoidance behavior.
As Omalu asks in is op-ed, “Why, then, do we continue to intentionally expose our children to this risk?”
Another pertinent question is, why do we as a society continue to sponsor football in our public schools — an activity clearly shown to be hazardous to the human brain — with taxpayer dollars that are intended to develop our children’s brains, not endanger them?
Omalu doesn’t solely focus on football. He also mentions, ice hockey, boxing and mixed martial arts. He could’ve also mentioned girls soccer, which is the sport with the second-highest number of concussions at the high school level. But it is football that has by far the most concussions and sub-concussive impacts to the brain. And football is the lone sport in which collisions — with other players or the ground — are an inherent part of the sport (unless one is talking about flag football).
Omalu lays out a strong case for keeping children out of football until they reach the age of consent and are old enough to analyze the information and research regarding the risks of playing. At that point, they can make a decision regarding their participation.
“We have a legal age for drinking alcohol; for joining the military; for voting; for smoking; for driving; and for consenting to have sex,” wrote Omalu. “We must have the same when it comes to protecting the organ that defines who we are as human beings.”
At the least, it’s time for a serious national discussion on kids and high-impact sports. We can’t just turn our heads and hope the issue goes away. Maybe ESPN could host and televise a national town hall meeting that would have a panel representing wide-ranging perspectives on the issue. Maybe we need Congressional hearings on the topic to bring all the available information on the topic out in the open.
But what we don’t need is more avoidance behavior.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of FansPrint
- League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.