About eighteen months ago, I wrote an article discussing the comments of Dr. Bennet Omalu in which he argued that children under the age of 18 should not play football. While I have never believed that we should eliminate the sport, I share his concern over repetitive subconcussive blows. These are the blows to the head not severe enough to cause an outright concussion but accumulate over time. Because of this risk, should parents let their kids play football?
For my latest newspaper column, I discuss Dr. Omalu’s latest thoughts on the dangers of football and other sports for young athletes.
The headline of the editorial in the December 7, 2015 issue of the New York Times read, “Don’t Let Kids Play Football.” Those were the words of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who first discovered CTE and the subject of the movie Concussion.
For the promotion of his new book, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side: My Alarming Discovery about the Danger of Contact Sports, Dr. Omalu spoke with reporters of several media outlets and offered even more provocative opinions about football and brain injuries in sports.
Pushing kids to play football equals child abuse?
The Nigerian-born doctor now equates football to child abuse. “Someday there will be a district attorney who will prosecute for child abuse, and it will succeed. It is the definition of child abuse.”
Should we ban football?
If an activity perceived to be so dangerous that you would call pushing your kids to do it child abuse, why wouldn’t we just ban it altogether?
In fact, Omalu disagrees with a ban on football. “This is America. You don’t ban anything.” He does, however, question whether kids under 18 should play football.
Six sports kids should avoid
It’s not just football that parents should reject. The chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County argues that parents should not let their children play six sports. Those sports are football, boxing, mixed martial arts (MMA), wrestling, rugby and ice hockey.
Even lacrosse and soccer, extremely popular sports in the United States, earn Omalu’s criticism. With lacrosse, Omalu points out that it has one of the highest rates of concussion of all sports.
With soccer, he stresses that the sport should not allow heading for players under the age of 18. Most brain experts currently push for heading limits under age 14.
Kids, boxing and repeated blows to the head
I’m not at all surprised with Omalu’s concerns about boxing. While researching my book, I spoke with Dr. Barry Jordan, a physician for USA Boxing. He pointed out that 20% of professional boxers develop CTE, the progressive degenerative brain disease that has garnered tremendous attention among former football players.
Dr. Jordan did not oppose boxing for kids when I asked him about it, but he did stress that kids should spar less. He also emphasized that a young fighter should adopt a more defensive fighting strategy to take fewer punches to the head.
Should we ban boxing and MMA?
I asked Dr. Jordan why the medical establishment has consistently called for boxing to be banned, while MMA has not drawn that criticism. (The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and numerous neurology and neurosurgery societies support a ban of boxing.) He says MMA will face those opponents, given he believes it’s more violent than boxing. “Give it time. I’m sure they will.”
Soccer and hockey take steps to decrease brain injuries
Like U.S. Soccer has done with heading, ice hockey has taken steps to decrease the risk of brain injuries. USA Hockey raised the minimum age for body checking to Bantam level, or ages 13 and 14.
Six sports appropriate for young athletes
In case you’re wondering what sports your kids could play, Dr. Omalu approves of six sports: basketball, tennis, track and field, swimming, badminton and table tennis.
Omalu resists criticism of the NFL, describing it as a corporation pushing a product with the goal of making money. He does criticize the sport itself. And he believes that all the attention directed toward CTE clouds a bigger danger.
Risk of CTE and other brain damage from football
He believes that CTE is just one brain disease in a wide spectrum of brain damage. By playing football, kids expose themselves to the risk of repeated blows to the head. “Once you start having hundreds or thousands of blows, there is a 100 percent risk of exposure to permanent brain damage.”
No safe blow to the head
After all, he is correct in pointing out that there is no safe blow to the head. Perhaps that’s the key reason it will be almost impossible to make football much safer.
A critical question for parents
That thought brings us back to the issue of child abuse. His argument goes much further than my concern about kids playing tackle football. But Dr. Omalu does ask parents, even those who have been staunch supporters of the sport, to consider what it can do to their children.
Omalu insists that parents should ask themselves, “Do I love football more than I love my child?”
In my book, That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever, I discuss traumatic brain injuries in football and the decisions parents will have to make about allowing their kids to play the sport. It’s important information for athletes and parents alike. Click here to get your copy!
A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the September 7, 2017 issue of The Post and Courier.
‘Concussion’ doctor: Youth football is child abuse. By Elliott Almond. The Mercury News. August 9, 2017.
Dr. Bennet Omalu: CTE obsession obscuring truth about brain health of football players. By Kevin Seifert. ESPN.com. August 4, 2017.
Bennet Omalu doesn’t support ban on football. By Jon Wilner. The Mercury News. February 4, 2016.
Don’t Let Kids Play Football. By Bennet Omalu. The New York Times. December 7, 2015.