Year after year, the National Football League continues to be one of the most viewed sports in America. Football brings fans from far and wide together to watch their team score touchdowns, win games, and also to watch their players hit their opponents really hard when they’re on defense which has led to a majorly pressing issue in the NFL: head protection. The earliest helmets “looked more like a padded aviator cap than the high-tech crash-tested helmet” used by today’s players which many players and the league are still having issues with. (Stamp) Head health and consciousness did not hit its early stages until the 1950’s when protection of the brain and face became much more of a concern to the league, team owners, and players. The pursuit for minimizing brain damage is the most crucial topic in football today. Here, we can examine the progression of NFL helmets from the 1920’s into football today.
By the early 1900s, the use of “soft leather skull caps” were starting to be worn by few players, and by the 1920’s harder leather helmet was introduced to the NFL to slightly increase the level of protecting, yet “helmets were [still] notmandatory.” (Stamp) The game didn’t fully make a change until 1943 when “John T. Riddell introduced the first plastic helmet” into the NFL, but this was unfortunately short lived. (Stamp) As plastic became scarcer during World War II, so did the much more durable helmet that would hopefully keep NFL players safer. Many questions rose from the use of plastic after World War II, debating what plastic to use and the different mix of plastics being unsafe which lead to the NFL banning plastic helmets.
Moving into the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, minimal innovation had been made to make the NFL helmet safe for the players. All of these open face helmets lead to “black eyes, bloody noses, and swollen lips” game after game. (Stamp) The first major improvement of the helmet came in 1955 when a face bar was added to the plastic helmets that had also been fixed to fit NFL standards. The face bar was invented and introduced by “Paul Brown, the first coach of Cleveland’s professional football team” which he originally invented because his quarterback Otto Graham took a very hard hit “right in the kisser”. (Stamp) Brown and the equipment manager quickly assembled the first face bar during the game, “patched up Graham, and sent him back on the field to win the game.” (Stamp) After the win, a few minor adjustments were made to Brown’s idea of the face bar and other NFL began to follow suit. He patented the design “known as BT-5, and it went into production by Riddell” who produced the NFL’s helmets until the 2013-14 season. (Stamp)
While trying to solidify a design that would be comfortable for the players while also keeping their heads safe, the NFL did not innovate the technology for helmets until the 1970’s when “energy absorbing helmets” were invented by Riddell, “add[ing] air bladders inside helmets to soften impact” on every hit. (NFL) Further technology enhancements were introduced in 1984 when the first molded polycarbonate helmets were founded. Polycarbonate is a strong, tough material that would bring much more protection to the players. Throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s the only advancement made to helmet technology was the addition of polycarbonate face grill to protect the face along with the head. Innovation had come to a halt, which lead to the increased curiosity on the truth about the safety of NFL helmets. In 2000, Riddell was designing a helmet strictly to reduce player’s concussion risk which would be a revolutionary product in football. With all the hype, the new helmet “would become the most widely used helmet in the NFL and earn millions in sales to players in college, high school and youth leagues.” (Shankman, PBS) But during the development of the new technology, a biomechanics firm that was hired by the NFL and Riddell to test helmets and study head injuries “sent the company a report showing that no football helmet, no matter how revolutionary, couldn’t prevent concussions.” (Shankman, PBS) The research dove deeper into the logistics of industry safety protection and stated even helmets that passed those standards still leaves players “with a 95 percent likelihood of receiving a concussion from a strong enough blow” to the head. (Shankman, PBS) The report did not stop Riddell from marketing their helmet as the most advance type yet to prevent concussion by stating that “players who wore it were 31 percent less likely to suffer a concussion” which they knew was an extremely exaggerated statistic. (Shankman, PBS)
Since the termination of the NFL’s original deal with Riddell, they have moved on seeking out the highest quality protection for the players. As of 2018, “the league has sought to have players stop using 10 helmet varieties” and came out with a list of helmets that meet the NFL’s standards on helmet protection and safety. (USA Today) The list consists of 10 helmets: “the Rawlings’ Impulse and Impulse+, Quantum and Tachyon; SG Varsity and SG 2.0; Schutt Vengeance Z10 (model 204100), Air XP (model 789002) and Air XP Pro (model 789102); and Riddell VSR-4 (model R41133).” (USA Today) Approximately 200 players wore the helmets on the updated list the season prior, with much more interest going into the 2019 season. While this is the current list of safest helmets, there is no security that any of these models will stay in the top 10 for long as the NFL continues to invest in helmet technology research in the steps toward optimal player safety.
“NFL to Prohibit Use of Certain Helmets for 1st Time.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 16 Apr. 2018, www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/2018/04/16/nfl-to-prohibit-use-of-certain-helmets-for-1st-time/33889889/.
Person. “History of the NFL Football Helmet.” NFL.com, National Football League, 15 Nov. 2012, www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap1000000095139/article/history-of-the-nfl-football-helmet.
Shankman, Sabrina. “NFL Helmet Manufacturer Warned On Concussion Risk.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 1 May 2013, www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/nfl-helmet-manufacturer-warned-on-concussion-risk/.
Stamp, Jimmy. “Leatherhead to Radio-Head: The Evolution of the Football Helmet.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Oct. 2012, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/leatherhead-to-radio-head-the-evolution-of-the-football-helmet-56585562/.