Youth football as child abuse: Hyperbole or hard truth?

Sometimes, timing is everything.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered the condition known chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and whose life was dramatized in the movie “Concussion” starring Will Smith, called youth football “the definition of child abuse” in a talk with the New York Press Club recently.

Omalu cited a recent study by Boston University that found that 110 of 111 former NFL players who had their brains donated for examination suffered from CTE. The study also said that 21 percent of high school players and 90 percent of college players tested suffer from CTE.

Studies like those are hampered somewhat by the fact that CTE cannot be diagnosed in living people, only after post-mortem examination of brain tissue.

Omalu, whose memoir “Truth Doesn’t Have a Side” will be released on Tuesday, believes no person under 18 should be playing football.

Funny how this is all hitting America’s pages, airwaves and computer screens just before A) the start of football season, and B) Omalu has a new book coming out. Just a coincidence, I’m sure.

While the risks of tackle football to functioning human brains are clear and the concussions-in-youth-football discussion is certainly one worth having, calling the sport “child abuse” does that discussion no good.

Neither does dismissing the risks entirely.

Clearly, football isn’t going anywhere, at least not any time soon.

According to a recent press release from the Michigan High School Athletic Association, football is the most-played high-school sport in the country, with 1,086,748 players donning helmets nationwide during the 2016 season. That number was down two percent from the previous year, continuing a recent trend.

An estimated 3 million or so children ages 6 to 18 play organized football nationwide, off their peak from 2009, down as much as 14 percent.

Locally, however, it’s a somewhat different story. Michigan ranked above its population rank in participation in sports in general and football in particular. Michigan is the tenth-largest state in the union by population.

According to the MHSAA, this state “moved up to seventh, from eighth, for 8-player football participation – significant because the state’s 11-player football participation ranking didn’t fall with that increase, remaining at sixth nationally for the fourth straight year.”

With football as popular as it is around here, one has to wonder if parents and others don’t know or simply don’t care about the concussion data. That is not to say that football is bad, or should be banned or anything so drastic, but the numbers are fairly dramatic, and I would expect a great deal more blowback from them.

More information from the MHSAA, its second-annual survey of head injuries, reported that 4.5 percent of those playing high-school 11-player football suffered a reported head injury, 3.23 percent in 8-player football.

Those numbers may not look all that big to you, but combined with the CTE numbers just starting to come out in sufficient volume, the correlation between football and lasting brain injury cannot be ignored.

At the youth level, advances in helmet technology combined with what should be more enlightened coaching techniques should be enough to save the sport from causing the sort of widespread brain damage that we see pretty clearly in the professional game. The charge of “child abuse” is little more than hyperbole from a man who is literally making a career out of crusading against the sport.

At the high-school level, more research needs to be done before we can conclude that football is dangerous enough to either change it drastically or keep schools from offering it.

But that research needs to be done and its findings need to be heeded, not ignored or dismissed just because we love our Friday night lights.

At some point, we will have to ask ourselves the hard question: How much severe brain injury is acceptable in high-school football?

As with everything in life, the answer cannot be a knee-jerk “zero.” That simply isn’t realistic. But it also cannot be, “whatever, just shut up and play.”

Ironically, we need to make sure we use our brains. Willful ignorance is no better than the regular kind.

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Posted by Scott Yoshonis

Scott is the sports editor of the Manistee News Advocate. You can reach him at (231) 398-3112 or syoshonis@pioneergroup.com.

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