In an op-ed for The New York Times published Monday, a forensic pathologist by the name of Bennet Omalu argued for a unique approach to football’s concussion crisis: Require children to reach the legal age of consent before they can play the sport.
“We have a legal age for drinking alcohol; for joining the military; for voting; for smoking; for driving; and for consenting to have sex,” he wrote. “We must have the same when it comes to protecting the organ that defines who we are as human beings.”
You might not know Omalu’s name off the bat, but if you’ve turned on the TV in the last month, you likely know some version of his story. Omalu is the basis of Will Smith’s character in the upcoming film “Concussion,” which depicts Omalu's fight to prove that NFL players develop the brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) as a direct result of football -- a link the league famously tried to discredit.
Omalu argued in the op-ed that requiring children to reach a legal age before they can play football would allow them to make the decision themselves, as adults, rather than be pressured by parents and prospective coaches, as children. In a conversation with HuffPost earlier this year, Omalu made a similar point, focusing on asbestos.
“In the ‘70s, we used asbestos as an industrial product. Today, we do not use asbestos any longer because we know that asbestos causes cancer,” Omalu told HuffPost. “Why would the risk of traumatic brain injury be different? Knowing what we know now, it is my opinion that we should at least let children reach the age of consent, be educated as adults, informed as adults and let them make their personal decision as adults [as to] whether they engage in activities that may be harmful to your health.”
“Why would we intentionally continue to expose the most vulnerable of our society, the most precious gifts of our lives, to activities that are harmful to their health?” Omalu added. “Especially to the most precious parts of them, which define who they are as human beings? These are societal questions we should begin as a society to ask ourselves.”
Because CTE can only be detected in the dead, it is difficult to say exactly how dangerous it is to play football at a young age compared to later in life. But there are a growing number of signs that it may be not worth the risk. Two studies this year have provided evidence that NFL players who played tackle football before age 12 had an increased risk of cognitive issues later in life, compared to peers who started later. A study recently published by the Mayo Clinic found evidence of CTE in amateur athletes across a variety of sports, football included.
While we don’t have all the evidence, there has been enough uncovered for many prominent concussion experts to question whether kids should play tackle football. The prominent neurosurgeon Robert Cantu has long advised children to avoid tackle football through the age of 14, as have many others. Later this month, a paper will run in the American Journal of Bioethics that will push against allowing young children to play the sport.
But Omalu’s position is even stronger than both of these, akin to making football illegal among children of high school age. That's a radical proposition, but it comes amid a year when at least 11 high school football players have died. And while many of them died from issues unrelated to the head, it's worth remembering that the rate of death at the high school level has remained relatively constant since the 1980s. For all the talk of the sport being safer for children, it still isn't, at least in the most important way.
Add all the danger together, and it's enough to make Omalu's central question at least worth pondering: Would our children even want to play football later in life if we didn't encourage them to do so earlier on?
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