The doctor who discovered shocking brain injuries in American football stars has predicted that people will stop playing contact sports within “one generation”.

Doctor Bennet Omalu was the pioneering neuropathologist who first discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of NFL stars.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Omalu, who was played by Will Smith in the Hollywood film Concussion, said: “In the next generation or two, mankind won’t be playing sports like rugby or football or ice hockey or mixed martial arts.

“It just doesn’t make sense to be damaging the brain of a human being.”

The Nigerian-born doctor also called for a ban on children playing contact sports: “It’s almost like child abuse, to intentionally expose a child to injury,” he told the SMH.

Omalu first began developing his theories on CTE when he conducted an autopsy on former NFL player Mike Webster in 2002.

Webster had once won four Super Bowls but died penniless, only able to sleep by tasering himself.

Dr Bennet Omalu with Will Smith, who played him in the film Concussion. Photo / AP

Omalu found large amounts of tau protein in Webster’s brain. The protein affects the brain in a similar way to how beta-amyloid proteins contribute to Alzheimer’s Disease.

Omalu published his findings in 2005, calling for further study of the disease: “We herein report the first documented case of long-term neurodegenerative changes in a retired professional NFL player consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

This case draws attention to a disease that remains inadequately studied in the cohort of professional football players, with unknown true prevalence rates.”

The NFL tried to play down the findings and hired their own specialists to discredit Omalu’s work.

He went on to study more NFL players and public awareness of his work increased, resulting in the NFL finally acknowledging a link between their sport and long-term neurological effects in 2009.

It took until 2016 for a senior NFL executive to testify before the US Congress that the organisation believed there was a link between gridiron and CTE.

Herald investigation in 2016 found numerous cases of former rugby players who went on to develop dementia.

Speaking to Herald journalist Dylan Cleaver, clinical neuropsychologist Dr John Glass said of the link between rugby and dementia: “There’s a pattern and it’s sad.”

A group of top US scientists told the Herald earlier this year that no child should be playing contact sport before the age of 12, saying that tackling might be too much for the brain development of young children.

Dr Bob Cantu, the “Godfather of Concussion” said a key factor in developing CTE was not the severity of the trauma but “the total amount of hits you took and when you started taking them”.

Cantu said impacts received when young came at a greater price than those as an adult, regardless of force, and was adamant there should not be any tackle codes until high school.

“Your neck is weak and your brain isn’t myelinated, and it’s easier to disrupt brain fibres,” he said.

Earlier this year, New Zealand Rugby head of medical Ian Murphy said there was still much to learn about the risk-reward of contact youth sport and said his organisation would continue to offer tackle rugby to children, with a continuing onus on technique.

“You’re seeing an emerging discussion around non-contact forms of contact sports at younger ages. That’s emerging slowly. It’s arguably not a bad thing but I think there’ll always be a group that likes to play the contact form of games,” Murphy said.

NZ Herald




  1. Future of Tackle Football in America

    I grew up loving the sport (and played one year of tackle after being asked by the coaching staff at my high school), but don’t think it [football] has much of a future. Dropping participation and lawsuits at the lowest level will continue the trend of awareness for the general public. Ultimately this will lead insurance companies to drop sport coverage at the high school and college level. The NFL will survive the longest, but the quality of athlete it procures will slowly decay. The cultural fanaticism the sport has maintained over the past 80 years is about to be challenged/changed.

    It would seem that the 7% drop in football participation over the past ten years isn’t a big deal, but a closer look at the numbers suggests it might be. Football doesn’t have to hit true zero for the sport to evaporate or at least start to decline at an increasing rate. As the rate of players drops (people buying pads/helmets) and the expenses related to the pads/equipment increases (as demanded by new safety requirements), we are likely to see a huge inflationary period within the sport where it becomes unaffordable for small middle or high schools to even offer the sport. Analogous to falling dominos, once smaller schools start to drop, bigger schools will start to fall as well as they will not have teams to play, nor will they have the side of the majority supporting its inclusion in the school curriculum.

    Furthermore, the sport needs at least 11 players to even field a squad. For arguments sake, let’s assume that a team needs 22 (one for each position offense/defense) to be a viable “team.” If a high school averages a 50-man roster that leaves us with 28 players to be reduced before the sport hits its floor. Assuming it loses one player per year (1-3-5% / year) the sport of tackle football will not be played in 28 years, at least at the lower levels.

    This model excludes one potential catalyst to the collapse – a live test for the disease.

    Science’s silver bullet: If scientists develop a test for CTE in the living (expected to come in about 5 years) we might see football go away before 2030 at the lowest levels. No way a middle school or high school can ethically justify giving its students brain damage. I am under the impression that a governmental school is intended to educate students minds, first and foremost. As science advances one will hypothetically be able to say, “this athlete got brain damage during this calendar year on school grounds.” This cannot withstand the litmus test (at least for very long). As with anything where a lot of money is stake, politicians and pseudo-scientist will emerge to try to discredit and disavow what science is informing the public. We are already seeing that in California with the “Save Youth Football Campaign”.

    I foresee economic challenges related to football’s closure impacting many major Universities who have overspent and over allocated resources during the past couple decades. My alma mater, Clemson University, may be on the most adverse offenders. Sure, we are excelling at the sport, but we are relying on the sport to do most of our advertising, we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a sport that doesn’t look to have moral leg to stand on. Eventually the truth will bear out.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here