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.