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Exclusive: Calls for ban on young players heading footballs as brain-injury expert says under 18s are in danger

Jeremy Wilson
Brain-injury experts want to introduce an immediate ban on heading for children below the age of 18 - Photolibrary RM

The brain doctor who inspired a Hollywood movie in the United States has urged football to respond to its dementia crisis by introducing an immediate ban on heading for children below the age of 18.

Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in American football players and was played by Will Smith in the film Concussion, likened what he calls a “public health issue” to how the damage caused by smoking was only gradually acknowledged back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Research by the Glasgow Brain Injury Research Group has found that former professional footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to die from neurological diseases than the general population.

Omalu is unsurprised by the results and, although the precise cause of these diseases is unknown and wider health benefits were found from playing football, he believes that children must be urgently protected and that common sense should prevail in ultimately eliminating football’s aerial element.

“Begin with the children,” Omalu said. “There should not be any heading of the ball below the age of 18. Why 18? Because that is when the human brain becomes fully developed. It is usually the age of adult consent. It is not intelligent for a human being to use his head to stop or deflect a ball travelling at a high velocity. As a society we should evolve.

“Soccer is the biggest sport in the world and the UK is the pace-setter. It should lead. If they want to seek my advice, I am willing to give it. The question is, ‘Would they approach me to tell them the truth?’ We need to embrace the truth no matter how inconvenient it is and live more intelligent and healthier lives.”

The Football Association does not currently believe that there is sufficient evidence to remove heading from children’s football. Other medics, including Dr Don Williams, a consultant psychiatrist who first began assessing the impact of heading and repetitive brain trauma in football almost 40 years ago, fears that the authorities are trapped in a research cycle and says that sport should now proceed according to the ‘precautionary principle’ and stop heading among children.

“This principle is important in public health and asserts that when there is scientific uncertainty about a controversial matter the way forward must be decided by erring on the side of caution,” said Williams.

Omalu also believes that additional allowances should be made for how, up until the age of 12, children have less developed spacial awareness and dexterity and so are more susceptible to collisions and falls.

A child prepares to head the ball Credit: Tim Macpherson

“The world is intelligent enough to come up with new ways that children can play soccer safely,” he said. “We need some sustained systematic behavioural changes. If you took heading from soccer, soccer would still survive and be perhaps an even more entertaining sport.”

Omalu’s warnings about American footballers were initially disputed in the United States, but the families of former NFL players suffering from dementia were eventually awarded funds from a $1 billion compensation budget. He believes that government should now legislate.

“No sport should be banned but, just like any other public health endeavour, there need to be legislative tools to induce change especially when it comes to children who are the most vulnerable and valuable in our society,” he said. “What we are dealing with is risk management. You can never reduce risk to zero but you do whatever you can to mitigate the risk. We don’t need to attack the sport. We need to develop another narrative of education for parents, children, coaches so they make informed and intelligent decisions.”

Heading for children under 10 is already banned in the US and a new study has also been launched into head trauma among women footballers, who are at greater risk of concussion. Michelle Akers and Brandi Chastain, who were part of the United States teams which won both the World Cup and the Olympics during the 1990s, will take part in a study that will track 20 former elite players who are now over 40.

Akers, who was renowned for her aerial quality, now suffers chronic migraines while Chastain says that she experiences occasional short-term memory lapses.