The upcoming movie “Concussion” profiles the work of Bennet Omalu, the first person to find a link between football players and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and how much the NFL did or didn’t know about the effects of concussion on its players.
In the week’s leading up to the film’s release, Omalu has been advocating for improved brain injury education and awareness, but his recent op-ed in Monday’s New York Times may be his most controversial effort yet.
In his New York Times piece, Omalu says children under the age of 18 should not be allowed to play full-contact football.
To some, Omalu’s argument may seem to go too far, but the noted neuroscientist says the science supports him. He begins by comparing our increasing understanding of brain injuries and their long-term effects to the way we gradually discovered the dangers of things such as cigarettes, asbestos, and alcohol. As we came to understand the risks associated with these things, changes had to be made to protect individuals.
“As we become more intellectually sophisticated and advanced,” Omalu writes, “With greater and broader access to information and knowledge, we have given up old practices in the name of safety and progress. That is, except when it comes to sports.”
It has become clear, Omalu argues, “that repetitive blows to the head in high-impact contact sports like football, ice hockey, mixed-martial arts and boxing place athletes at high risk of permanent brain damage. …Why, then, do we continue to intentionally expose our children to this risk?”
Omalu says even if a child athlete participating in football does not have any record of concussions, the child could still potentially show damage at the cellular level. Over time, these tiny injuries can accumulate and lead to permanent injury and CTE.
The chief medical examiner in San Joaquin County, Calif. and an associate clinical professor of pathology at the University of California-Davis, Omalu notes that unlike most other organs in the human body, the brain is not able to cure itself following all types of injury.
We are born with a certain number of neurons. We can only lose them; we cannot create new neurons or replenish old or dying ones,” Omalu writes.
Some may see Omalu’s opinion as an attack on the sport, but ultimately his argument boils down to the fact that the human brain isn’t fully developed until between the ages of 18 to 25. Rather than putting young, growing brains at risk, he suggests there should be a minimum age to play the sport.
Read Omalu’s op-ed piece for the New York Times here.