Football season is upon us. However, for many football parents, those Friday night games can bring anxiety. In recent years, there have been many studies that have highlighted the danger of football, especially as it relates to head injuries and long-term, irreversible brain damage.
Now, forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (the doctor who was featured in Will Smith’s Hollywood blockbuster “Concussion”) is coming out with a stern warning about football for parents. In fact, he has come right out and said that he considers allowing children playing football to be a form of child abuse.
Yes, child abuse.
Omalu is the physician who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (a degenerative brain disease that often impacts athletes who play high-contact sports). Here’s what he told “Today”:
We wouldn’t give a child a cigarette to smoke because a cigarette is potentially harmful. But we would put on a helmet on the head of a child and send him out on a field to play a game whereby he sustains repeated blows to his head, to suffer sub-concussions and concussions. Which is more dangerous: a cigarette or a concussion of the brain? A concussion of the brain, of course. If that is not the definition of child abuse, what is it?
Wow. And football is not the only sport that Omalu cautions parents against. He says that other dangerous high-contact sports like ice hockey, lacrosse, boxing, mixed-martial arts, wrestling and rugby should also be avoided, as blows to the head are “intrinsic” to these sports and hence pose significant risks to children. Instead, he suggests that parents enroll children in sports that are no-contact, such as swimming, track and field, volleyball, basketball and tennis.
He even advises against soccer, and says that in its current form, only children older than 12 to 14 should play the sport, as younger kids don’t yet have the dexterity and coordination needed to safely play soccer. He also says there should be no “heading” (hitting the soccer ball with your head) for players under the age of 18 years.
Omalu is not the only doctor who is warning parents about the dangers of concussions in sports. Many other experts have stepped forward to warn about the risk of head injuries in sports, especially football—as the chances of suffering a catastrophic injury is three times higher in football as compared to other sports.
In fact, a recent study published in Radiology found that even some children who have exhibited no concussion symptoms following a head injury still experienced traumatic brain injury. In other words, even if your kids show no signs of brain damage, they may have sustained a serious injury.
There also cases of “secondary concussions,” in which the brain swells following the impact, and in severe cases, it could even lead to death. For many parents, this research is compelling enough to make them think twice about letting their kids play football.
Joel Stitzel, a researcher at Wake Forest School of Medicine, studied the effects of impact to the head on the brains of male football players between the ages of 8 and 13. The boys underwent brain imaging before and after their football season. The results showed that the boys who experienced more impact to their heads had decreased white matter in their brains.
“It’s difficult to say what the changes mean, but they do seem to be directly correlated with the impact that kids are sustaining,” Stizel told The Atlantic.
But when the publication asked him if that meant kids should stop playing football, he said no: “We aren’t out to destroy football, by any means. This is the type of work that’s going to save and help football going forward.”
Ideally, Stitzel said research like his would be used to help make football safer, particularly for young players, 70 percent of whom play in organizations that don’t currently have national oversight.
What do you think about all of this? Do you agree with Omalu that children shouldn’t play football? Or do you think Stitzel’s take makes more sense?