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Aug 2017

Law and Medicine May Tackle Youth Football

It’s August, which means many high school football fields are filled with young men working out in pads and helmets. Whistles blow. Tackle sleds move. Pigskins are tossed in the air. But take a good look at this gridiron imagery because it may soon be a mere memory.

If a Lodi doctor has his way, the days of youth tackle football – from Pop Warner to High School – are numbered. For Dr. Bennet Omalu, whose career crusade was the focus of the Will Smith film Concussion, the near future demise of youth football is inevitable.

Contract law permits adults – those 18 years of age or older – to make legal and contract decisions. The issue of children, those under the age of 18, having the ability to make an informed decision is the center of tackle football’s controversy as a youth sport.

“Someday there will be a district attorney who will prosecute for child abuse [on the football field], and it will succeed,” Dr. Omalu said at the New York Press Club in midtown Manhattan. “It is the definition of child abuse.”

Dr. Omalu, a forensic pathologist, has seen his crusade strengthened by the more recent scientific discoveries of football player’s brains. Omalu’s research of the death of Hall of Fame football player Mike Webster led to his discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This brain disease, at the heart of lawsuits and a controversial settlement for affected NFL players, jarringly returned to the world spotlight when a recent study showed 110 of 111 former NFL players who donated their brains for examination upon their death suffered from CTE.

“That study out of Boston simply reaffirmed something we have always known, that there is nothing like a safe blow to the head,” Dr. Omalu said. “If you play football, and if your child plays football, there is a 100 percent risk exposure. There is nothing like making football safer. That’s a misnomer.”

Dr. Omalu has stated, and offered evidence to support his theories, that it is not just the vicious blows to the head that leads to CTE. He has stated it is just the repetitive banging and jarring for lineman on each and every snap that over time produces the damage.

When Dr. Omalu brought his findings to the NFL, the billion-dollar league ignored his theories and evidence. Eventually, the federal courts forced the NFL to pay a $1 billion settlement to the league’s former players who were suffering from the debilitating effects of CTE. However, Dr. Omalu does not fault the NFL. Instead, the physician and father is perplexed at how society fosters the sport’s popularity for youth despite the overwhelming evidence of its inherent danger.

“There is nothing the league [NFL] can do. The league is a corporation,” said Dr. Omalu during his speech. “What do corporations do? Make money. They’re not there to provide health care or perform research. That is not what they’re there to do. They’re selling product. If they feel the need to make any changes, they’re making calculated changes that will enhance their bottom line.”

Dr. Omalu’s new book, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side, was released this week. His book’s purpose is to reach parents who are thinking about letting their children play tackle football. His belief is that no child under the age of 18 should be allowed to play sports with such proclivity for brain damage. Dr. Omalu firmly believes the courts will eventually back him, which will bring an end to youth tackle football.

“Adults are free to do whatever they want to do, as long as they have educated consent. But children, no,” Dr. Omalu said. “And we’ve always done that whenever we identify a possible risk factor. What we do as a society is protect children from being exposed to such risk factors. We do that with cigarette smoking. We did that with alcohol. Why not football, which is more dangerous?

“We wouldn’t let children smoke a stick of cigarette, but then send them to a football field to sustain concussions? So I think it’s time for society to tell the truth.”

Dr. Omalu’s message has slowly been gaining steam with many closest to the game: the professional players. Many current and former players have publicly stated they would not let their kids play football or would have them wait until high school at the earliest. Other NFL players, such as Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, have stepped away from the pro game at a very young age to prevent any further damage to their brain.

It should be noted that Dr. Omalu is a realist. He knows the culture will not change overnight. He acknowledged there has not been a significant drop-off in participation in youth football given the CTE news. But just as it took the courts to force the NFL to compensate its former players, Dr. Omalu believes eventually the law cannot avoid what he sees as a clear-cut public risk factor for children playing football.

“The truth will always prevail,” Dr. Omalu has said, “but it may take a long time to come.”

The day is coming, sooner than many may realize, when August high school football practices will feature flags hanging from a player’s hips rather than pads upon their shoulders and helmets on their heads.

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