Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist and leading expert in the growing field of concussion research, wrote in an op-ed piece Monday for the New York Times that children should be prevented from playing football and other high-impact contact sports before the age of 18:
Our children are minors who have not reached the age of consent. It is our moral duty as a society to protect the most vulnerable of us. 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.
Omalu brings up several points to back up this assertion. For starters, he notes research has led to the conclusion that repeated blows to the head can contribute to permanent brain damage, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE.
CTE can cause "major depression, memory loss, suicidal thought and actions, loss of intelligence as well as dementia later in life," per Omalu. What makes this particularly scary, Omalu notes, is that "the brain, unlike most other organs, does not have the capacity to cure itself following all types of injuries."
He concludes by noting that laws have been put in place to prevent children from harming themselves by smoking cigarettes or consuming alcohol, with age restrictions to prevent minors from purchasing them. He suggests that authority figures such as parents, coaches and doctors should insist on young men and women not playing contact sports as minors.
That viewpoint, of course, will be a controversial one. High school football in particular is the centerpiece of many communities around the country. Eliminating that institution would provoke major backlash.
But as more research continues to show the dangers of head trauma, more parents may keep their children from playing football at a young age. The NFL and college football have been forced to take dramatic steps to protect players from dangerous head injuries. Those measures—such as eliminating helmet-to-helmet contact on defenseless receivers, for instance—may not be enough to protect minors from suffering head trauma, however.