In an op-ed piece for The New York Times entitled, “Don’t Let Kids Play Football,” Dr. Bennet Omalu — the forensic pathologist whose discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy is the subject of a Will Smith movie that will be released later this month — advocated against children participating in high-impact sports until age 18.
Citing similar recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics and Canadian Pediatric Society, Omalu equated football and other contact sports with other public health hazards like smoking, alcohol consumption and asbestos.
“Our children are minors who have not reached the age of consent. It is our moral duty as a society to protect the most vulnerable of us. 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.”
Explaining how children can suffer “irreversible brain damage” even if never diagnosed with a concussion, Omalu suggested a legal age for participating in high-impact sports, just as there is for consuming alcohol, smoking, etc.
Omalu first discovered CTE in 2002 after conducting an autopsy on the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers star Mike Webster. His findings in a 2005 publication entitled, “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player,” was at first criticized and later accepted by the NFL. Smith plays Omalu in the film “Concussion,” which follows the Nigerian-born doctor’s battle to convince the league of the dangers of repetitive brain trauma.
It is now widely accepted that concussions can lead to an increased risk of memory and intelligence loss, depression, dementia and even suicide, as is suspected in the deaths of several high-profile football players. However, CTE has been discovered in soccer and other sports in addition to football, so any movement toward legislating high-impact sports would require a drastic change in how the culture views youth athletics.