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Recently, a high-school football game in New Brunswick was called off after one of the teams, Moncton's École l'Odysée Olympiens, saw nine players leave the field with head injuries.

The words spoken afterward by an opposing coach laid bare an uncomfortable truth. "That's how football is," Scott O'Neal of Sackville's Tantramar Titans told CBC.

The problem is not the way the game is played so much as it is the nature of the sport itself.

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It's not realistic to demand an outright ban on youth football or hockey – or all manner of contact sports – but it's time Canadians had a discussion about whether children should play them, how and at what age.

One prominent concussion expert, Dr. Bennet Omalu, suggests tackle football should be reserved to those 18 and older, and that high-school football is tantamount to child abuse.

That's a debatable assertion, but here's one that isn't: We can no longer claim ignorance about the dangers of head trauma.

Concussions are particularly dangerous to younger brains, because susceptibility increases with each occurrence, and it doesn't require many to permanently impair cognitive function.

Repeated head injuries are also linked to degenerative brain disease.

Recent studies show that while so-called collision sports – hockey, football, rugby and the like – are the most hazardous, incidental contact sports (basketball, soccer) can also result in lasting damage.

Neuroscientists at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital discovered that even healthy athletes with no concussion history have quantifiably different brain function after playing light-contact sports.

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In the medium term, the focus must be on changing the culture of sports. Erring on the side of caution must become the default.

Former Montreal Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden suggests in a new book that hockey can begin by penalizing all contact with the head and retiring the concept of "finishing your check." Great ideas.

Hockey's culture means many in the pro game will be bitterly opposed to Mr. Dryden's ideas. But let's not allow debates over what professional sports leagues do – or fail to do – distract from the urgent need for action at the youth level.

The odds of the nine injured kids from Moncton playing pro are infinitesimal. It doesn't make their brains any less vulnerable.

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