Thursday, November 12, 2009

Retire the Football Helmet?

In recent years, much attention has been paid to the potential harm suffered by football players in the routine course of their sport. In the past, it has been widely accepted that the price of a football career includes lingering problems with knees, elbows and other joints. Shocking new evidence suggests, however, that football players are putting themselves at risk for severe mental problems.

The NFL's own study indicated that retired players suffer early-onset dementia at a rate four to five times higher than the general population (the League then tried to claim such studies were unreliable). Books have been published on the subject, studies have been commissioned. Last month, Commissioner Goodell was grilled by Congress over this issue.

Even if the League eventually admits that this is a real problem, the question of how to address it remains. Much of the focus has been on preventing these types of injuries by improving the technology. More padding, different types of padding, new shell designs. Special mouth guards.

Today, the Wall Street Journal weighs in with a long and interesting article proposing a different solution. I'm only going to quote an exerpt here, but check out the full article.


Is It Time to Retire the Football Helmet?

New Research Says Small Hits Do Major Damage—and There's Not Much Headgear Can Do About It


This football season, the debate about head injuries has reached a critical mass. Startling research has been unveiled. Maudlin headlines have been written. Congress called a hearing on the subject last month.

As obvious as the problem may seem (wait, you mean football is dangerous?), continuing revelations about the troubling mental declines of some retired players—and the ongoing parade of concussions during games—have created a sense of inevitability. Pretty soon, something will have to be done.

But before the debate goes any further, there's a fundamental question that needs to be investigated. Why do football players wear helmets in the first place? And more important, could the helmets be part of the problem?

"Some people have advocated for years to take the helmet off, take the face mask off. That'll change the game dramatically," says Fred Mueller, a University of North Carolina professor who studies head injuries. "Maybe that's better than brain damage."

The first hard-shell helmets, which became popular in the 1940s, weren't designed to prevent concussions but to prevent players in that rough-and-tumble era from suffering catastrophic injuries like fractured skulls.

But while these helmets reduced the chances of death on the field, they also created a sense of invulnerability that encouraged players to collide more forcefully and more often. "Almost every single play, you're going to get hit in the head," says Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jake Long.

What nobody knew at the time is that these small collisions may be just as damaging. The growing body of research on former football players suggests that brain damage isn't necessarily the result of any one trauma, but the accumulation of thousands of seemingly innocuous blows to the head.

An interesting idea. I've long advocated a ban on the body armor baseball players wear at the plate, for similar reasons. It breeds a feeling of invincibility and allows the batter to crowd the plate. In that case, my concern was more about pitchers losing the ability to pitch inside, not about preventing injuries.

They bring up rugby and Australian Rules football as examples of two sports with similarly violent play, yet only a fraction of the head injuries of the NFL.

Plastic football helmets were first developed by Riddell in 1935. This 1940 article from the Bend (Oregon) Bulletin describes the new plastic helmets to be worn by the University of Minnesota, an early adopter, as "glass-like." Riddell used a trademarked clear plastic they called "Tenite" in their helmets, which were painted on the inside. This would last until the later 1950s, when "Tenite" was replaced by a material called "Kra-lite," which was gray in color. Teams then painted the outside of the helmet to match their desired colors.

World War II diverted the bulk of plastic production to defense and delayed the plastic helmet's introduction to the NFL until the 1944 season.

As the plastic helmet's popularity spread, controversy followed.

The chief complaint, echoed by at least one prominent sports surgeon, was that by shielding football players from impact plastic helmets encouraged more violent play, and the unyielding synthetic surface increased the potential damage done to other players in collisions. Sound familiar?

The NFL, concerned about rising injuries, took the extreme step of actually banning plastic helmets in 1948. This was the announcement, following the League's annual owners' meeting in January of that year:

The ban was short-lived, and was rescinded at the following year's meeting:

Still, some teams held out even after the prohibition was lifted. I'm not aware when the first Packer stepped onto the field in City Stadium wearing a synthetic helmet. Curly Lambeau doesn't appear to have been a proponent, based on team photographs.

The man who personally led the League in innovation with the first team to travel to games by plane, own its own self-contained training camp facility, and have a fight song seemed to be in no hurry to replace his leather helmets. Perhaps he had the same safety concerns.

Even into the 1960s, the controvery lingered:

Since then, of course, helmets have become the most identifiable feature of pro football teams. They have become a visual stand-in for a club (as anyone who has ever seen Monday Night Football can attest). They've become additional logos. Heck, the Cleveland Browns use their helmet as their logo. You don't see this happening with baseball caps.

The NFL recognizes and encourages this helmet branding. In 2002, the Seattle Seahawks submitted a new uniform design to the NFL for approval, including different helmets (one blue, one silver) for home and road.

This road/home split might be common in other sports, but other sports are not Pro Football, and the League rejected that element out of concern that the Seahawk brand might be diluted. The team then held a fan vote to see which helmet would be adopted (blue won).

So the League not only has an interest in denying the connection between repeated hits and early onset dementia, they also have a financial interest in maintaining the helmet status quo.

Where does that leave us? The game has changed relatively slowly around us. Hits are getting harder, and players are getting bigger. I'm not the first one to point out that in 1985 William Perry's 335 pound frame was so out of the ordinary it earned him the nickname "the Fridge." Now fully one-quarter of the league weighs in over 300 pounds.

Change is difficult. Sudden change doubly so. The modern game has evolved slowly over decades to become the bone-jarring contest it is now. Any attempts to suddenly alter it will be met with great resistence. But as NPR's Scott Simon put it, "Modern polycarbonate helmets have let players weaponize their heads." That just can't be sustained.

Something will have to be done. Surely there's a middle ground between eliminating helmets altogether and continuing down the gladiatorial path. Perhaps streamlining helmets, making them strong enough to reduce one's own injuries but not so much so that they cause injuries in others, can be that ground. The league can still slap logos on the sides, but players won't have to pay such a terrible price to play the game they love.

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