The Nigerian Boston University PhD who first identified CTE in the brain of a deceased NFL player and has since helmed the crusade to increase awareness of traumatic brain injuries is speaking out forcefully against all youth football, citing an everpresent risk of brain damage for any young student who puts on a helmet.
In an interview with ESPN, Dr. Bennet Omalu, the man who was made famous by Will Smith’s portrayal in the movie ‘Concussion,’ made his most direct and aggressive plea yet for parents to restrain their children from playing football, for their own health.
“There has been so much fascination with CTE that we are going the wrong way,” Dr. Bennet Omalu told ESPN. “CTE is just one disease in a spectrum of many diseases caused by brain trauma. If he doesn’t have CTE, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have brain damage. … I’ve always said that every child who plays football has a 100 percent risk of exposure to brain damage. And I’ve always said that at a professional level, 100 percent would have brain damage of some kind to some degree. That’s whether or not their brains are found to have CTE.”
The messaging here is in line with what Omalu has previously held regarding brain injuries, and particularly a broader understanding of the entire swath of traumatic head injuries which can occur in high impact sports such as football.
Perhaps the most significant change in Omalu’s tone comes from where he is now directing responsibility, moving beyond the NFL and its decision makers to parents themselves. Per Omalu, there are no circumstances in which any parent should consider allowing their children to compete in football because of the inherent risk it holds on their cognitive development.
That’s a different tact from trying to spur reform from the NFL itself, as Omalu has previously attempted by demonstrating the levels of CTE in the brains of former players.
“I don’t attack the NFL,” Omalu said. “I shouldn’t. The NFL is a corporation. This is a free market. What do corporations do? They try to make money by selling a product or service. The NFL is not in the business of health care. It is not a research organization. If you think the NFL is not doing anything, well, what do you expect? They are in the business of making money. The issue is parents.
“I wouldn’t let my children engage in an activity that has a very strong probability of undermining their intellectual development. Why would I do that to my child?”
Whether this new messaging from Omalu has as profound an impact as his groundbreaking work remains to be seen. If nothing else, it certainly shifts some of the personal agency about the threat of traumatic head injuries and how one should react to them squarely away from the organizations that support and put on football and on to the families which play the game.