WSJ: retire the helmet?

Submitted by WildcatBlue on November 11th, 2009 at 11:59 PM

According to the Wall Street Journal, there is some evidence that the football helmet, no matter how advanced, may cause more head trauma than it prevents.

The gist of it is a mutually assured destruction kind of thing: the helmet leads to a sense of invulnerability that in turn leads to dangerous tackling techniques whereas hatless players avoid dangerous contact to save their own brains. Australian Rules Football is discussed as a comparison, and Dhani Jones is quoted.

My two cents: I had two concussions playing football, one with a helmet, one without. Neither was enjoyable.

Discuss, oh concussed masses.


The Bugle

November 12th, 2009 at 5:27 AM ^

Umm have you ever watched a Rugby Union game? Even though Football evolved from Rugby they really don't have too much in common anymore besides the ways of scoring. (On a tangent I don't understand why it is called a Try in Rugby and a Touchdown in Football as you are actually required to "touch the ball down" in Rugby to score.)

I understand getting rid of helmets in football will never happen. However, I think the NFL is really going to come under pressure once scientists figure out how damaging some of the head injuries really are.

One thing Football could take from Rugby is the use of other parts of the body to absorb hits. For example, if you aren't wearing any padding or a helmet you actually need to think where you put your head to make a tackle. Also, in scrums (the equivalent of in the trenches) the main collision happens on the shoulders and neck, not the head.

Am I trying to say Rugby is better than Football, no. All I am saying is, I don't think this issue is going to go away. In fact, as we learn more I think it will become an even bigger issue. I'm not really sure what the solution to it is, as according to another article I read (Malcolm Gladwell in The Atlantic -- Brian had it in mgo.licious about a month ago) the general consensus among academics is that it will be virtually impossible to prevent concussions using the current technology.

100 Years ago Teddy Roosevelt helped make wholesale changes to the game due to an inordinate number of kids dying playing football. Do you think that this issue could lead to another shift in the sport?


November 12th, 2009 at 8:37 AM ^

All kidding aside I agree on the concussions. This is getting more and more attention and something has to give. I don't see a major change coming - there is too much money involved. What I do expect is stricter enforcement of rules requiring players with concussions to sit for longer periods. I am still shocked at how many supposedly "heal" and are back in a week or two. All the evidence is increasingly pointing to that not being possible.

My understanding of the evolution of American football is that it began as rugby, adding the reset at the line of scrimmage between plays, essentially allowing the game to be played out in greater space, hence more action. The forward pass further evolved that concept.

Also agreee on the dilemma created by simply using the helmet - the sense of being more protected will always encourage the use of the head/helmet as a weapon.

The changes will be incremental but hopefully will have some benefit


November 16th, 2009 at 9:24 AM ^

This is one of those things that isn't going to go away. Especially in the NCAA where you have so many young players taking these risks purely for the love of the game while universities and television networks make millions -- nay, billions -- from them and their fans. Only a tiny percentage of players make it to an NFL payday.

I think first you will see players sitting out longer for any slight concussion -- I don't know what the smart medicine says on whether it really makes any difference (my instinct is that it probably takes a very long time to fully heal -- i.e., the risk is the same after three weeks versus three months), but as a matter of public perception, universities are going to become less and less willing to risk a second, more catastrophic, injury only a few weeks after the first. So we'll start seeing more season-ending concussions.

Rules can be strengthened, with more penalties on the individual player -- sort of like DUI laws. I'm not in favor of more team penalties during games, but when somebody is a menace to themselves and others, they need to be taken off the road.

Finally, tackling might actually improve with stricter rules about guided-missile hits. It was made popular by certain NFL players who had the judgment and physical prowess required to make it work, but your average NCAA grunt doesn't have the complete package.


November 12th, 2009 at 12:24 AM ^

The NFL is taking a lot of heat with concussions and the general consensus is "there is only so much a helmet can prevent".

However, in no way will football ever remove the helmet. This is not a thigh or knee pad issue.

Also, things are obviously shitty if the WSJ is reporting on this crap.


November 12th, 2009 at 12:25 AM ^

You tell that to a guy who gets stepped on at the bottom of the pile.

Helmets are a reason nobody tries to do what Spikes did on a regular basis. Sure, its all fun and games when you're poking somebody's eyes out, but nobody wants to break their hand while doing it.

Also, if you're a qb and get taken down to the ground on you back, hard, on Astro Turf, you are going to be damn glad that you have that helmet on.


November 12th, 2009 at 9:49 AM ^

You see football players leading with the crown of their helmets on tackles all the time. (Notre Dame's safeties going for killshots on Tate earlier this year is an example that comes readily to mind.) I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone say that they felt their seat belt gave them license to drive into a tree.

Bando Calrissian

November 12th, 2009 at 12:36 AM ^

There is definitely an element of truth to the too much protection causes feelings of invulnerability mentality. I once heard Red Berenson say, when asked what the one thing he would change about college hockey, that he thought that adding full facemasks to helmets caused more harm than good. It brought about an entirely different style of hockey by which sticks were carried too high, slashes became more common, and guys began to play fearlessly because they felt protected and invincible with the facemask, leading to more injuries.

It makes sense. That being said, no helmets? With the speed these guys are moving in modern football, not to mention how big they are? No thanks. Take a look at the height and weight of football players in the pre-helmet era. Heck, look at the size and weight of football players 30 years ago.


November 12th, 2009 at 8:59 AM ^

PETA should be on your ass for that avatar.

Also, it's true, something has to give. We're watching people ruin their quality of life right now, especially the lineman.

I suppose it's just the nature of the game. I do think having some education on the subject be mandatory for the players, so they at least know what's happening to them and make the decision on their own, would be good. Boxing does something similar to people's brains and god knows I like that.


November 12th, 2009 at 9:43 AM ^

Peta is way too busy defending the rights of deer as we continue to slam into them with our cars by the thousands.

The helmet issue is a major problem. Players are bigger, stronger, faster and hit harder, and the impacts create more G's. Better helmet design may help a bit, but the laws of physics are what they are. Sometimes, as we all know, the results aren't pretty. Intentional helmet to helmet hits are problematic and should be dealt with severely.

As far as our helmet design goes, any talk of changing the most famous helmet in the world of sports would be an act of heresy.

Tim Waymen

November 12th, 2009 at 1:59 PM ^

A few years ago, The Boston Globe's auto section wrote about how Saabs are made to withstand a moose collision, and that the company conducts tests in Sweden to ensure this. Some poor, angry saps wrote in expressing outrage that Saab would display such cruelty to animals by conducting crash tests with live moose (pl. meese?). This is funny because the morons didn't even stop to consider the possibility that a car company and its engineers would build and use moose stand-ins i.e. dummies.

Kilgore Trout

November 12th, 2009 at 10:08 AM ^

I've heard some proponents of changing the tackling rules to prevent some of the injuries. Basically saying if you don't wrap a player up on a tackle, it's a personal foul. Would prevent people from using their bodies as missles.


November 12th, 2009 at 11:01 AM ^

This is reasonable and the logic, although I doubt it will ever happen. The helmet protecting the head in football is so embedded in our grey matter that it would take a huge set of balls to take a chance and get rid of them.

One issue with comparing with other sports though is that the hitting in football is naturally a lot more dangerous since players are frequently exposed to hits without an ability to defend themselves from it. Such as QBs throwing a pass or a guy covering special teams who gets knocked into next week with a blindside hit. Plus, the players are bigger and run faster.

restive neb

November 12th, 2009 at 7:20 PM ^

...improperly sized helmets. The bottom of the helmet has to be smaller than the thickest part of your head, or it isn't fitting snugly. When the helmet fits properly, it is somewhat uncomfortable slipping the helmet over your ears. More and more, I see players just loosely slip the helmet onto their heads, which tells me the pads around the sides are not fitting properly. With an improperly fitted helmet, the cushions cannot absorb the blow the way they were designed to, and are actually striking against the head on impact. This could explain some of the increase in concussions, as well as the high frequency of helmets popping off heads.

Perhaps a reasonable first step, assuming we really care about player safety, is to ensure that players are wearing properly fitted helmets, even if they aren't as comfortable to slip on and off their heads.