Dr. Bennet Omalu, the subject of the upcoming movie Concussion, penned an editorial Monday in The New York Times calling for parents to prohibit their children from participating in high-impact contact sports such as football, ice hockey, mixed martial arts, and boxing until they reach the age of 18.
Omalu is the doctor who first discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a long-term degenerative brain disease found in a number of former NFL players and other contact-sports athletes over the past decade. In the editorial, he cited the risk of CTE as a reason to steer youths away from high-impact contact sports:
If a child who plays football is subjected to advanced radiological and neurocognitive studies during the season and several months after the season, there can be evidence of brain damage at the cellular level of brain functioning, even if there were no documented concussions or reported symptoms. If that child continues to play over many seasons, these cellular injuries accumulate to cause irreversible brain damage, which we know now by the name Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or C.T.E., a disease that I first diagnosed in 2002.
According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, months after a child suffers a mild traumatic brain injury such as a concussion, the changes in his or her brain may still persist even if he or she is symptom-free. A Mayo Clinic study published in the December issue of the journal Acto Neuropathologica also suggests youth-athletes who participate in contact sports may be at higher risk of developing CTE later in life, as 21 of 66 study participants who played contact sports had “pathology consistent with CTE” in their brains.
Omalu isn’t calling for such sports to be completely abolished, however. He acknowledged that adults have the right to partake in risky behavior, such as smoking cigarettes or consuming alcohol. The same is true for participating in high-impact contact sports, he said in his op-ed.
However, since children “are minors who have not reached the age of consent,” Omalu wrote that he believes “it is our moral duty as a society to protect the most vulnerable of us.” He continued:
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.
While Omalu’s stance is perhaps more radical than most, he isn’t the only one who believes in restricting youths’ participation in contact sports to some degree. Dr. Robert Cantu, author of the 2012 book “Concussions and Our Kids,” believes children under the age of 14 should be prohibited from playing tackle football, body-checking in ice hockey, or heading soccer balls. Earlier this year, former stars of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team teamed with the Sports Legacy Institute and the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics to launch an initiative encouraging all middle school soccer teams and under-14 youth-soccer leagues to ban headers. In November, the U.S. Soccer Federation recommended prohibiting soccer players 10 and under from heading the ball and said those players who are 11 to 13 should only be allowed to do so in practice.
As a whole, youth-sports organizations have made significant strides in recent years regarding concussion awareness and prevention. As new research continues to emerge—and as concern rises over the long-term impacts of smaller, subconcussive hits—the debate will no doubt continue over how youth-sports leagues must evolve.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.