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NFL Injuries, Part 5: Fixing a 68-Year Old Mistake

Let’s go back to square one. From the time the NFL was formed, everyone knew that football was a game of violence and injuries. To minimize injuries, safety equipment was added in those early years: soft leather helmets, shoulder pads, hip pads, face bars, thigh pads, knee pads and so on.

The “evolution” of head gear proceeded like this: 1920s, soft leather helmets; 1930’s, hard leather helmets; 1939, the first plastic helmet was patented; 1940, the chin strap was invented; 1943, all players were required to wear helmets; 1949, plastic helmets were adopted by the league; 1955, the single face bar was introduced; 1962, face bars became a requirement; 1960s, double-bar facemasks were introduced; 1971, air bladders were added to the insides of helmets; 1986, the first polycarbonate helmet was produced; 2011, impact indicators were put in chin straps to help identify head injuries – I didn’t know that.

The bone-headed decision that has led to thousands of unnecessary injuries and shortened hundreds of careers, was the one made in 1949, when the NFL required the use of hard-plastic exterior-shell helmets.

Think about it. Why in such a violent contact sport would anyone add a rock-hard surface to the exterior of a football helmet?

I would argue that hard and rigid helmets are a major reason we have so many concussive injuries. The idea behind protective headgear or padding in general, should be to absorb the impact of a blow or to spread the impact out over a wider area of the body.

While the interior of a helmet provides some absorption and protection, the exterior does not. Wouldn’t it make sense to do away with the polycarbonate exterior shell and instead use about a one-inch thick rubber or rubber-like material that deforms and absorbs much of the blow even before the inner cushioning does its work?

Helmets Have Become Weapons

The biggest reason by far, however, that I am advocating a non-rigid helmet exterior, is the damage that helmets do to players struck by them.

Take, for example, Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson’s injury in last season’s playoffs. Players seldom suffer broken ribs when hit by bodies, shoulder pads, forearms or the field turf. It’s the rock-hard helmet shell that caused that injury.

You can go right down the list of football injuries. Other than pulled hamstrings, I’d guess that over half of them are caused by a helmet being propelled into another’s knee, shoulder, back, ribs, hip, elbow, abdomen or the like. Even lesser injuries, such as broken or dislocated fingers that quarterbacks get when their passing follow-though motion contacts a rusher’s helmet are highly preventable.

There’s only one thing worse that a brutal hit to the body by a helmet: two helmets colliding together. We’re seeing examples of such very intentional hits nearly every game.

The league will never be able to prevent such dirty and dangerous play. Since 2007, the NFL has encouraged referees to eject any player deemed to have flagrantly committed a helmet-to-helmet violation – but how often have you seen anyone ejected for this? A month ago, the league adopted yet another rule to try to help prevent defenseless receivers from head hits – it won’t cause any significant reduction of helmet-to-helmet hits either.

Instead, the league should turn its attention to redesigning helmets so they have an outer shell that gives or compresses when contact is made. And while they are at it, facemasks should be made out of semi-rigid deformable rubber, not rigid metal.

Even going back to the leather helmets worn by Curly Lambeau, Cecil Isbell and Don Hutson would be a marked improvement over today’s helmets.

The modern helmet has become an offensive weapon, not an item of safety equipment.

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Rob Born

Someone else said it first but I popularized it: “Athleticism is important in athletic pursuits.” It took three years, but the Packers finally listened. My new mantra: “Trading down is fine, but never trade up.”

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8 Comments

  1. Mikkel April 25, 2017

    Yay! That is spot on and exactly what I have been thinking for a while. My bicycle helmet is made of semi-hard plastic foam and will break (instead of my head) if I happen to get tackled by a car. Much like crumble zones on racing cars.

    Why not use plastic foam helmets instead of hard shells? Another advantage is that a player breaking his helmet would have to go to the sideline for a play or two. That should make them a bit more careful about using the helmet as a weapon.

  2. Bob April 25, 2017

    Vicis Zero1 is a start in the right direction. Not sure eliminating helmets will help. I believe Rugby is in the same boat as football, they are just a few years behind… (regarding concussions)

    1. Cheese April 25, 2017

      I was wondering how rugby fared with concussions being that they don’t have helmets. Doesn’t sound any better than not having helmets.

    2. Syltynn April 25, 2017

      Without helmets players won’t come crashing in head first. Rugby has no concussion problem like the NFL. Get rid of helmets and you get tid of concussions.

    3. Robster April 26, 2017

      The brand new Vicis Zero1 helmet (see “vicis.co”) features a pretty slim soft outer shell and an underlying layer of columns designed to mitigate collisions from multiple directions. It seems to be promising technology, but at $1,500 won’t replace the standard helmet anytime soon.

  3. Duane Young April 25, 2017

    I may have an answer to the hamstring injuries. I have been a competitive powerlifter for 30 years. I have used creatine sporadically since it first became available. In the years 2012-2014, I was using it religiously when training for competitions. During this time I was also having issues with my hamstrings. I was dealing with slight tears and pulls. Eventually I ripped my left hamstring very badly in a competition. After this event I was telling a coach about my hamstring issues. He asked me if I was using creatine. I answered affirmatively and he suggested creatine was the problem. I stopped using it at that time. I am still competing and recently had one of the best meets of my career. No creatine no hamstring issues. I am sure guys like Clay Matthews use creatine to boost their training. Also, many supplements are not advertised as creatine, but have creatine in them. Lose the creatine, save your hamstrings.

  4. MJ April 25, 2017

    It’s not that simple, Rob. The hard surface disperses the impact over a large area covered by the soft padding inside. Remove the hard surface, and the padding compression will be larger. If compressed to its maximum, the remaining momentum transfer will be hard.
    If you want to prevent helmet-to-body damage, then cover the helmet with something softer. At least that will disperse the impact that would otherwise hit a bone in a very small area, thus increasing the risk of fracture.
    Another aspect that cannot be exploited here would be increasing the mass of the helmets. Medieval helmets had a rigid outside and padding inside, just like football helmets. But on top of that, they were quite heavy, from 10 to 20 lb. The mass would make the acceleration of your head smaller, thus reducing concussive damage. But… a medieval helmet is mostly stationary, only the weapon striking it moves rapidly. Football helmets adding to the head mass that is already moving fast would make things worse, since in that case, the absorbing material needs to bring more momentum to a halt. Yes, football helmets act as the weapon too, unlike medieval helmets.
    Bottom line, keep a rigid layer outside to disperse the impact over more of the underlying padding, and keep the helmets light so you don’t need to bring more momentum to a halt (increasing the collisional forces involved).
    I only agree with the idea to cover the rigid layer with softer padding to protect the guy hit by a helmet.

  5. ay hombre April 26, 2017

    Good article.

    I’ve been saying this for years also. And look at the shoulder pads. Did we view the game any less enjoyable to watch when the shoulder pads were massive? No. Now the shoulder pads are tiny and everything is designed on making the players more compact. Faster. This not only increases the speed at which collisions take place, the smaller pads designed on making the players more compact only adds to the intensity of every collision. There is no give anymore when someone puts a shoulder into your chest. There’s no absorption it’s just hardcore impact.

    The tighter all the padding is to the body and smaller these guys look on the field, the more jarring every hit will be.

    The sound of two helmets colliding is enough to give someone a concussion alone, not even considering the impact and punishment end of it. I can’t see how a softer slick shell that adds some give to each head contact wouldn’t be an improvement.