Channel 2 Investigates

Doctor says letting kids play football should be considered child abuse

The prominent doctor who inspired the movie "Concussion" told Channel 2 Action News that someday, parents allowing their children to play football will be considered child abuse.

Dr. Bennet Omalu told Channel 2 Sports Director Zach Klein no one under the age of 18 should play football. But one local doctor and leaders of Metro Atlanta's Pop Warner league say steps can be taken to protect children against brain injuries on the football field.

Hard hits are a part of football.

"I like playing football because of the hitting," said 10-year-old Antrell Matthews, who plays for the Henry County Mustangs.

Hard hits to the head can lead to brain injuries including concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The symptoms of CTE are severe.

CTE is a degenerative condition linked to repeated head injuries. It is only diagnosed after death by studying the brain.

“Diminished intelligence, inability to control your moods, your emotions, your temper,” said Dr. Omalu.

Dr. Bennett Omalu

He is the first doctor to discover CTE in a NFL player and his research inspired the movie “Concussion.”

Channel 2 Action News flew to California to go one-on-one with Omalu. He told us why he believes letting a child under the age of 18 play football is child abuse.

“Sending out a child to a field to suffer intentionally inflicted brain damage … there is 100 percent risk of exposure to brain damage. If that is not the classic definition of child abuse, what is?” he said.

Football had more concussions in games and practices that any other sport, more than 6 percent, according to a study of high school athletes between the 2008 and 2010 school years in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.

Other recent studies have raised awareness about the dangers of concussions and CTE and it's having an impact on youth football. Across the U.S., fewer children are playing the sport.

However, Ryan Brown, the CEO and president of metro Atlanta Pop Warner, said local enrollment is up.  Brown credits that to the way Pop Warner teaches children how to tackle to help prevent brain injuries.

“We no longer use the head. We try to take the head out of the game, shoulder and arm tackle,” Brown said.

Channel 2 Action News went to a Henry County Mustangs practice and asked players how they are taught to tackle.

“Your shoulder,” said 8-year-old Caden Smith.

“You have to lead with your shoulders so you don’t have a concussion because if you lead with your head you’ll have a concussion,” Matthews said.


Brown said teaching the right way to tackle has led to fewer concussions.

“Within our three years of existence we had maybe one concussion and a broken arm and that was it,” he said.

“That seems like a low number,” said Dr. Jeffrey Webb, an Emory Sports Medicine specialist and a team doctor for the Atlanta Falcons.

Webb said he believes calling football child abuse is a stretch.

“It’s hard to make the jump, though, from where we are right now in our concussion research to it being abuse for our children,” he said.

Jennifer Rice told Channel 2 Action News she had concerns before her son started playing for the Mustangs.

“I was terrified at first. I was really worried,” Rice said.

She disagreed with Omalu about letting kids play football.

“No way is it child abuse. I worry about him playing football no less than I do him walking down the stairs in the rain,” Rice said.

Omalu believes parents need to protect their kids by keeping them off the field.

“So knowing what we know today, why would you place a helmet on a child and send him out to a field to suffer brain damage?” Omalu said.

Former Georgia Bulldogs player Brandon Boykin now plays cornerback in the NFL. The current Baltimore Ravens player is on the sidelines recovering from a head and neck injury.

“There is no way as a parent I’d let my kid play knowing what we know now,” Boykin said.

Boykin said injuries and the aggressiveness of the sport are why he doesn’t want his future children to play.  However, he doesn’t think letting your child play football is child abuse.

Brandon Boykin

“Child abuse no, but understanding that this is a game and it shouldn’t be something that impacts your health for the rest of your life, yes,” Boykin said.

Boykin said he has recovered to the point where he may be able to play again.

He said it’s a great thing the NFL is shining a spotlight on the danger of concussions, but he said players need to take their safety into their own hands.