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Dr. Julian Bailes sees little risk of CTE from youth football

Leonard Marshall, Dr. Julian Bailes

Leonard Marshall, Dr. Julian Bailes

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

A day after one of the doctors portrayed in the upcoming film Concussion came out in favor of a ban on contact sports for children, one of that doctor’s longtime colleagues says he has a different takeaway from their research.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Julian Bailes said on Tuesday that he disagrees with his colleague Dr. Bennet Omalu, who wrote in the New York Times on Monday that he believes children should be barred from football, hockey, boxing, mixed martial arts and other contact sports. Bailes believes that recent rules changes made at all levels of football mitigate many of the risks associated with the sport.

“I’m a big believer in the benefits of organized sports and the benefits of football. I have two children who play football and I believe football is safer than it’s ever been,” Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at the NorthShore Neurological Institute, said on a conference call today.

Bailes said the risk of Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy comes from pro football players slamming into each other thousands of times over the course of years, and not from the kinds of hits that children inflict on each other in a few Pop Warner seasons. Bailes also believes that the seemingly large numbers of former players who have been diagnosed with CTE come from those players’ brains being selected for research specifically because those players showed symptoms of brain damage. Bailes said only about 100 football players have been shown to have CTE out of tens of thousands who have played in the NFL.

“We don’t know the prevalence of CTE. I have said and I believe that CTE is a risk in a minority of NFL players and hopefully in a group of players who are in a now bygone era, meaning that the reforms in the NFL that began in 2009, as a result of our work and others’ work, has resulted in sweeping changes,” Bailes said. “Those that have been tested were those who the family brought forward after death thinking that they had CTE, thinking they were symptomatic, thinking they were showing signs and symptoms, so it’s a very skewed, very biased sample if you look at it scientifically or epistemologically. We don’t know the real prevalence.”

In Concussion, Bailes is played by Alec Baldwin and Omalu is played by Will Smith. In real life, Omalu has referred to Bailes as “my mentor” on studying head injuries in football. But Bailes and Omalu disagree about whether football is safe for children. Omalu says it isn’t, Bailes says it is.