Brain expert calls for overhaul of youth football rules

Brain expert Bennet Omalu, who uncovered a health scandal in American football, has warned that association football needs to address the dangers of brain injury among players.

Omalu, who first identified Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in NFL players and inspired 2015 Hollywood film Concussion (where Omalu was played by actor Will Smith), believes scores of British footballers are also suffering from the disease. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Omalu says association football cannot survive as the world’s most popular sport unless this is tackled. Former England striker Jeff Astle died of CTE in 2002 and his family have been contacted by more than 300 families of former players with similar symptoms, but they believe the authorities have swept what they call “sport’s silent scandal” under the carpet. Omalu explained he is calling for the most comprehensive overhaul ever of the rules governing youth football. The Telegraph launched a campaign last year for research into the prevalence of dementia among former footballers and, although the FA and PFA pledged to fund a definitive study, the results will take several years. The neuropathologist says that anyone still disputing the damage sustained by repeated heading and aerial collisions is defying basic science and common sense, and that football is ultimately gambling with its own health if it does not respond. “I am speaking out because I recognise that it is for the long-term survivability of the sport,” says Omalu. “If I didn’t love this sport, I would have chosen to keep quiet and see it implode. I support soccer but 21st-century, smart, brain-friendly soccer. Nothing is too big or popular to fail. “Once parents begin to tell their children, ‘If you play that game, you may not be as smart as you should be,’ that’s all you need. Once that perception percolates down, that’s the end of the sport. I’m not saying it needs to be banned. It needs to be modified and made safer.” Omalu's calls include a total ban on heading below the age of 18 and, for children beneath the age of 12, lighter plastic balls and a modified “kick-ball” version of the game that minimises collisions. This is because a young child’s spatial awareness and dexterity are not developed and they are prone to bunching together. The neuropathologist's opinion is that sport’s governing bodies cannot be relied upon to lead. This follows his experience in America where his work was first ignored, then denied, then it became the catalyst for NFL compensation totalling around $1 billion (£770 million). The FA first promised a study shortly after Astle died more than 15 years ago. “The powers that be don’t want people to know because everyone is afraid the sports industries and other associated industries will lose money,” said Omalu. “This is a public health question. It is not a question that is left to sports. This is where I think the government is failing. “What you are facing in England is the same phenomenon we are facing when it comes to American football. Should we be intentionally exposing a large segment of the population to brain damage? That is unethical.” Omalu said he wants to “educate other physicians and parents”, rather than attack sports authorities. He is prepared for people to oppose him. Fifa’s position is that there is “no true evidence” on the negative effect of heading or receiving sub-concussive blows. The FA, which describes this as “a crucial issue”, intends to wait for its research before making recommendations. The Telegraph also referred to studies over the past year from the University of Stirling, which showed that brain function was impacted following heading practice, and University College London, which posthumously diagnosed CTE in four of six former players previously diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Omalu has also named rugby as one of the six high-impact sports that, in its current contact form, should not be practised by children below the age of 18. The others being American football, boxing, mixed martial arts, ice hockey and wrestling.
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