In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu ignited a firestorm when he published a study based on his autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster, presenting conclusive evidence of brain damage stemming from the long-term effects of repeated blows to the head. He named the disorder he was describing for the first time Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and approached the NFL, pointing out that a significant number of former players were exhibiting dementia-like symptoms in line with the symptoms exhibited by Webster. The league was dismissive of his findings and made some attempts to discredit Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant who stood up in the pocket as the NFL’s PR team rushed. Though it still has shaken out entirely, it’s likely that what happened next forever changed the sport of football: Aging players pledged their brains to laboratories and CTE became a household term.
Now that Omalu’s conclusions have become impossible to deny (and his story has been dramatized, with mixed results, in the Will Smith movie Concussion), Omalu is asking parents to reconsider letting their kids play America’s favorite game. The dangers, he says, are not just real at the NFL level. Little kids taking little-kid hits can still walk away with brain injuries. This is way an increasing number of high school and grade school coaches have gone low-contact with practices and also why parents have pulled their kids out of Pop Warner.
Omalue’s autobiography, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side: My Alarming Discovery About the Danger of Contact Sports, isn’t exactly a beach book, but it’s required reading for coaches and young players’ (and would-be players’) parents. In it, Dr. Omalu makes a compelling case that no child under the age of 18 in America today should play any of the high impact sports, high contact sports. And, yes, it’s a disappointing conclusion for many. But that doesn’t make it wrong. Numbers don’t lie and Dr. Omalu doesn’t either.
Fatherly spoke to Bennet Omalu about the risk parents take by letting their kids play contact sports and why America is so desperate to ignore the ugly realities laid bare by neuroscience.
You have repeatedly made the bold statement that letting a child play contact sports is a form of abuse. Now you’ve written that statement down. What compelled you to take such a strong stance?
At this point, with everything we know, letting your child play a contact sport is knowingly putting their long-term health at risk. An adult can make their own decision once they are aware of all the facts, but a child simply does not have the agency to understand the consequences of their decision. That responsibility falls on the parents, and when parents let a child play these dangerous sports, they are putting their kids in harm’s way. It’s as simple as that. No one under the age of 18 should be playing football or hockey or any of the other sports that pose such a clear and present risk.
The risks that come with kids playing contact sports are not new. In 1957, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a position paper that said no child under the age of 12 should play football because football undermined the musculoskeletal development of children. This was before they understood anything about the brain damage. Eleven years before I was born, there was this awareness. And the information we have has only grown. We need to start responding, or the damage will continue.
What is the risk parents are taking when they let them play contact sports?
Every child who plays football or any contact sport is at risk of exposure to brain damage. This is an undeniable fact. Simply put, the idea that there is such a thing as a safe blow to the head is completely false. And repeated blows to the head only increase the risk of brain damage. Our brains don’t have the capacity to regenerate. So if a child is being hit in the head hundreds or thousands of times, it is almost a certainty that they will experience brain damage, even if it is not CTE.
Why is America still in such denial when the evidence is so clear?
That’s a question I was forced to ask myself. Why isn’t America paying attention? Why would it take a buffoon like me, someone who knew nothing about football to figure out this massive, obvious problem with America’s favorite sport? In America’s richest league? The answer that came to my mind is what I call ‘Confirmational Intelligence.’
What is confirmational intelligence?
Confirmational intelligence is a phenomenon whereby your mentality, your way of thinking, is controlled by the expectations, traditions, and norms of society without you even being aware of it. And once that confirmation has been made in your mind, if objective evidence is provided to you to undermine your belief, your mind automatically rejects it and even ridicules it. If the evidence persists, you become emotional and even tribal. Confirmational intelligence makes you engage in cognitive dissonance and lowers your emotional IQ. That is why, even I discovered this disease in America, the doctors — not even the NFL — including the National Institute of Health rejected me, called me names, and eventually tried to claim I was not the one who discovered CTE.
Are you disappointed with the slow responses from the NFL and other leagues to your findings?
I don’t expect corporations like the NFL or NHL to do anything significant to address this issue. They are not health corporations. They are entertainment corporations. They are selling a product and they won’t embrace anything that hurts their product until they absolutely have to. Instead, the change has to come from the consumer. We have to make the hard choices and above all else, protect our children. And that means nobody below the age of 18 should ever play these contact sports.
In the face of so much opposition, is it hard to hold onto hope that things will improve?
No, because the truth will always prevail. It may take a long time. It may not happen in my lifetime. But there are no alternative facts. There are just facts. And, in the end, the truth wins every time. So I am very confident that the truth will eventually become accepted.
What is the biggest takeaway parents can expect from your book?
Each parent that would have their kid play football must ask themselves this simple, but difficult question, ‘Do I love football more than I love my child?’ Letting your child play football puts your desires above the well-being of your child. And if you know that you love your child more than this game, my book will give you peace. You will know the decision must be made, even if it is hard.