A few national sportswriters and pundits have started to bemoan what they allege to be the “war on football” that the media is engaged in, defending the sport for what it is and attacking those that are trying to eliminate it from the face of the American landscape. Right now, there is significant research that supports waiting until youngsters are at least 12-years old before they are allowed to play contact football, specifically in a study published in the medical journal Neurology by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine. While the justification for this argument is the physical development of the youngster, there is another argument that based on who is making it and the substance of the argument, I find quite interesting.
You may be familiar with Dr. Bennet Omalu, or have at least heard a little bit about his research. Perhaps you are aware of him being played by Will Smith in the movie Concussion. Omalu is a forensic pathologist and the leading expert in the growing field of concussion research, as well as the individual that initiated the study of the brains of former NFL football players. He identified what is commonly referred to as CTE. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy can cause “major depression, memory loss, suicidal thought and actions, and loss of intelligence as well as dementia later in life.” According to Omalu, what makes this particularly scary is that “the brain, unlike most other organs, does not have the capacity to cure itself following all types of injuries."
In late 2015, Omalu provided an op-ed piece to the New York Times in which he proposed that there should be a legal age established for children to reach before they can play football and other high contact sports. In essence, he proposes an age of legal consent, where the individual makes a legal decision as to whether or not they play the sport. According to Omalu: "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.” Obviously, that could have huge implications for high school football, the sport with the highest level of male participation in the country.
Switching gears a little bit, there are those devoted to the other brand of “football,” the international game we refer to as soccer, that also resent the “war” being waged on their beloved sport. For females, the sport with the highest incidence of concussions is soccer, followed by volleyball. Leaders in the sport of soccer in the United States have taken steps at youth levels by instituting changes in the rules. There were attempts at the development of various kinds of headgear for protection, but those proved either cumbersome or not effective. So, another step was taken: a ban on “heading” the ball until players reach a certain age. Purists in this sport are saying that the specific rule change is ruining the integrity of the game, the purity of the sport. Heading is a fundamental skill of soccer and to remove it significantly changes the game. So, it isn’t just proponents of American football that are facing a new reality in terms of the impact concussion research is having on a sport.
Obviously the implications on high school athletics would be huge, and from my perspective, I do not see this happening. However, it is a perspective that some people are going to listen to and could likely contribute to the declining number of children playing the game of football.