Why aren’t coaches, trainers, and various football organizations doing more to protect players, especially from head injuries? That is an interesting question, and one asked more often than it once was. In order to figure that out we decided to look into the evolution of the football helmet, what it is made of, and how well it works to protect the head from injury.
First, let’s remember that the American style of the sport has been around since the 1860s. Think about that, it has been with us more than a century and a half. That is a long time, and it has evolved greatly from the stand point of rules, perception, and safety equipment. Let’s dive in and look at helmets as they have changed, and when they first appeared.
Starting in these earliest games the players did not wear helmets. It was a much different game, there was protective head gear. Nothing, nada, zip, zero. When you stepped onto the field to face the very large men on the other team who wanted to throw you to the ground, there was nothing on your melon. Now, is that a good or a bad thing? Well, as we discuss the various styles of helmets, opinions on that matter may change.
You may think no helmet was a good idea, you may think even larger, more protective helmets are. We are not here to sway an argument, merely to give you facts from the perspective of how these different helmets function, what injuries were common during their use, and how they integrate into the game from the player perspective.
The era of no helmets
When football first came on the scene it was mainly played between colleges, and there wasn’t any kind of professional “get paid to play” organized version of the sport. As anyone can tell you when there isn’t a profit motive the budgets for organizing the sport are considerably smaller. Just look at the safety equipment budget difference between a university, a high school, and the NFL. There is a considerable difference in the cost, and level of performance of the various safety equipment used during gameplay.
We can assume when the sport was new, no one really understood what injuries might happen and what equipment was needed to improve player safety. That, coupled with the low budgets to non-existent budgets to pull together a game, let to people just getting dress, and heading out to the field.
This era didn’t last long, as the first use of a helmet we can find was in 1893 during and Army Navy game in Annapolis. Were head injuries common during this period of time? It is really hard to tell. There was no tracking of the players, no collection of doctor’s reports, and medicine was much different then than it is now. Could a concussion have even been accurately diagnosed? Considering that concussions were not fully understood by medical professionals at this time, the likelihood is low.
Now, let’s look at it from the gameplay standpoint. Would someone not wearing a helmet tackle another person in the same way as one wearing a helmet? I think a quick examination of rugby (a similar sport that has optional helmets) says no. Could a switch in tackling technique lower the rate of injury, and allow the game to be just as much fun to play, and for us to watch?
Well, let’s look at a rugby tackle versus an NFL “welcome to the gridiron” style tackle.
Remember, Rugby players, for the most part, don’t wear helmets. Their tackling style, as a result, is much different. They use their arms and have a much different target point on the ball carrier. In this sport players are taught to take their use their body to wrap up around the legs of the ball carrier. This is in stark contrast to football as the two players heads never really enter into the equation. The only time a head may be in jeopardy is when the players, as a jumble, hit the ground (recall also rugby is on grass not artificial turf, and don’t get us started on turf just yet). This is hugely different than an American Football tackle.
In the games we all watch on Sundays the typical tackling technique is different. It is sometimes called the “head across the bow” method. In this version of football, oftentimes, the tackling is aimed differently. Sure, there are times when someone grabs a foot or a leg to trip a guy up, but those aren’t the tackles that typically cause the most severe injury. Lots of tackles are aimed at the chest with the defensive player forcing their head across the chest of the ball carrier. Sometimes that head is forced up, and you get a helmet on helmet collision.
The force of these collisions is huge. Two NFL level football players when added together will have a combined weight of four hundred to five hundred pounds. If they are moving at full speed, well, it’s going to hurt, with or without pads. So, could a change in tackling technique make the difference in these injuries? Maybe it could. If we took away players helmets AND taught a different tackling technique would that make it safer? Well, who knows, but I guarantee you defensive guys would be much more selective in how they tackled, and would certainly not “use their heads” as much as they do with those helmets in place.
We leave it up to you to think about these things, and come to your own conclusion. This is merely offered to kick start a discussion revolving around the best way for players to play the game, and be able to go home in the same condition they showed up to the field.