Last week, a study found that former footballers are three and a half times more likely to die from brain diseases than others. Here, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a world expert who first identified chronic brain trauma in American football players, makes a passionate appeal to the authorities to ban players under the age of 18. . .
You are approaching a large, heavy object – so what do you do to block it? Maybe you use your hands or your feet? But why would you use your head?
But that is what happens every day in this country. Children are encouraged to play football – sometimes weighing up to a few pounds.
I am not given dramatic language, but sometimes situations require – and in my opinion, the need to prohibit football under the age of 18, when their fragile brains are not yet fully developed and most prone to damage, is an urgent situation.
Every time a child puts the ball with its head in the net, it can cause microscopic injuries to the brain. This is not an empty speculation, it is a scientific fact.
Every time a child sticks the ball with its head in the net, it can cause microscopic injuries to the brain (stock image)
While the head is hitting the ball, the brain that floats freely around the skull will be shaken, possibly causing sub-concussion, damage to brain cells that is not serious enough to cause immediate symptoms but that are cumulative because the head is repeated can be devastating.
What's more, the brain is a post-mitotic organ – meaning it has no reasonable ability to regenerate itself.
That is why leading the ball could lead to a devastating diagnosis of, for example, dementia in the coming years – and at an earlier age than it could normally strike. My eyes were opened for this risk when I was assigned in 2002 to perform an autopsy on the legendary American footballer Mike Webster, who had died at the age of 50.
The cause of death was a heart attack, but as a neuropathologist I was naturally interested in changes in the brain.
During the autopsy I made an amazing discovery – finding changes that should not have been present in the brain of a man his age.
I found signs of a disease that had never been identified in soccer players before – chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injury. As such, it was the first hard evidence that playing football can cause permanent brain damage.
Findings from the site like this, the Football Association in the UK does not currently believe that there is sufficient evidence to remove the course from children's football, but in the US the authorities are taking a different view.
In 2015, the United States Football Association announced a groundbreaking ban on headers for children aged 10 and under, and a limit for the same practice for children aged 11 to 13. It was an admirable security initiative, but in my opinion it is not enough.
The prohibition must extend to 18 when the brain is fully developed and therefore more resistant to damage.
In 2015, the United States Football Association announced a groundbreaking ban on headers for children aged 10 and under, and a limit for the same practice for children aged 11 to 13 (stock image)
I also think that younger children should play a modified type of football where there is less contact and the football is larger and lighter, reducing the amount of impact when it affects them.
As for adults – well, I can't tell anyone what to do. But it is my duty as a doctor to emphasize the inherent risk.
The more you hit your head, the greater the chance that you will damage your brain, regardless of your age.
Some will argue that if we remove the head, football will be ruined like a sport. I do not agree with it. It is simply about adapting techniques to ensure safety without discouraging participation.
In 1976, The Lancet magazine published an editorial that said it was foolish for humanity to intentionally cause brain damage in sport when it was avoidable. Of course accidents happen. But deliberately and foolishly letting people suffer brain damage makes no sense at all.
Football, or football as we call it in the US, is the biggest sport in the world and the UK is setting the tone. We must embrace the truth, no matter how difficult.
Nobody wants to ban sports. This is about controlling the risk. Direction simply should not have a place in football.
- Dr. Omalu is an associate professor of medical pathology at the University of California.
INTERVIEW: ANGELA EPSTEIN
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