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 other exciting plays that can sometimes involve really big tackles. This age of football where hitting your opponent as hard as possible has led to a very pressing issue within the league, head protection. As of lately we are seeing more and more players take on suspensions for helmet-to-helmet collisions. For example, Vontaze Burfict was suspended for the remainder of the season after steamrolling over Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle in a gruesome collision, which is displayed in the photo above. Other notable players like Wayne Chrebet have spoken out about head pains which he believes may have ended his career.
Jimmy Stamp, who wrote The Evolution of the Football Helmet explained in his article that the earliest helmets “looked more like a padded aviator cap than the high-tech crash-tested helmet”. Head health and consciousness was never a concern during the early stages of the game, but within the past five years the NFL and NFLPA has taken many more precautions on the topic of brain and face protection. 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] not mandatory,” Stamp explained. The game didn’t fully make a change until 1943 when “John T. Riddell introduced the first plastic helmet” into the NFL, but Stamp explains in his article how this was unfortunately short lived. 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.
“Black eyes, blood noses, and swollen lips”
Moving into the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, minimal innovation had been made to make the NFL helmet safe for the players. Stamp mentions how open-faced helmets lead to “black eyes, bloody noses, and swollen lips” game after game. 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,” said Stamp. Brown and the equipment manager quickly assembled the first face bar during the game and immediately sent Graham back on the field to finish the game. After the win, a few minor adjustments were made to Brown’s idea of the face bar and other NFL began to follow suit. Stamp mentions in his article that coach Paul Brown patented the design “known as BT-5, and it went into production by Riddell” who produced the majority of the NFL’s helmets until the 2013-14 season.
The NFL and its contractors struggled to innovate helmet technology over the next decade. The NFL released an article called the History of the NFL Football Helmet and explains that it wasn’t until the 1970’s when “energy absorbing helmets” were invented by Riddell, “add[ing] air bladders inside helmets to soften impact” on every hit. 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.
Who is looking out for the players?
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 PBS journalist Sabrina Shankman explained that Riddell’s 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.” 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 confirmed. Her article dives 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 elaborates on how 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.” Riddell was also sued in 2013 by high school football coaches for the injuries a teenager in Colorado suffered leading to a payout of $11.5 million. The high school teenager used the modeled helmet above, which was a 2002 prototype. If football players can’t trust the companies making the helmets, who can they trust with their safety?
Since the termination of the NFL’s original deal with Riddell, they have moved on seeking out the highest quality protection for the players. USA Today released an article on the NFL prohibiting players from using certain helmets for the first time, and 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. The article lists 10 helmets that will be banned from practice and gameplay including “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).” While this is the current list of banned helmet types, it is important that the NFLPA and the NFL continue to collaborate on this issue and put the players’ health first. The NFL recorded a 16% increase in concussions from 2016 to 2017 and a 24% decrease from 2017 to 2018.
Regardless of the recent decrease in concussions, they should be working towards a constant decrease in injuries for their players that put their bodies on line every week in practice and on gameday while the team owners sit in their boxes reaping the benefits of their hardwork. In today’s league where the players are growing faster, stronger, and more athletic than ever, it is important that the NFL organization does everything they can to limit injury risk and keep the players safe.