Playing football without helmets discussed

When the sport of football first kicked off, it was a barbaric competition that required few safety measures in order to square off on the gridiron, and this year, and specifically November, is the centennial anniversary of the sport.

National Public Radio broadcast a piece today reflecting back on the brutality the sport involved in its infancy titled “ When Football’s Deadly Brutality Outraged America.”

I love watching and playing football, so my ears perked up when I heard this and started doing some reading about the safety of the game.

The piece, by Frank Deford, said during the 1909 season The Chicago Tribune reported 26 players died on the playing field.

Luckily the flying wedge was banned and the forward pass was legalized, all of which helped improve the safety of the game.

In those early days, though, helmets weren’t a necessity, but for the sake of safety, helmets were implemented later on.

Ever since the sport has been viewed as considerably safer, but now there are some who think some safety devices, such as the helmets, are actually doing more harm than good.

The Wall Street Journal posed the question in a Nov. 11 article titled “Is It Time to Retire the Football Helmet?

In the article, the fact that many former NFL players are turning out to have mental problems due to the blows received by playing the sport for several years was focused upon, and it also considered the number of high-profile concussion that players have received in recent months, such as Florida Gator Tim Tebow’s concussion he received in September.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell even appeared in front of the House Judiciary Committee in October to discuss the correlation between concussion players received during the seasons and brain disease retired players experience as they get older.

These two pieces of evidence have led some researchers to suggest eliminating the helmet from the game of football.

“Some people have advocated for years to take the helmet off, take the face mask off. That’ll change the game dramatically,” Fred Mueller, a University of North Carolina professor who studies head injuries, said in the article.

When helmets were first designed, they were made to prevent skull fractures, not concussion; however, the article did point out that the safety devices “created a sense of invulnerability that encouraged players to collide more forcefully more often.”

And so the problem was born.

Researchers sited in the story have said numerous small hits that appear to have to immediate affect on the player actually create more long-term brain problems than one, skull-rattling blow, and a helmet can’t prevent the smaller hits, which can be as simple as a slap to the head as a defender tries to get past a lineman.

Currently, for a helmet to be eligible for sale it has to have a “severity index” score of 1,200, according to the article, citing information from the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.

One NOCSAE board member is Dr. Robert Cantu, who is the chief of neurosurgery at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass.

He said for a helmet to protect against the smaller blows it would have to have a “severity index” of 300, which means the helmets would have to be hugs and packed with padding.

The players’ brains might then be safer, but with a heavier helmet, their necks would be exposed to serious injury.

As the article pointed out, the Australian Football League doesn’t wear helmets or many other forms of safety gear, and even though those players injure their shoulders and ankles more, “NFL players are about 25 percent more likely to sustain” head injuries.

American players, according to Australia’s University of New South Wales researcher Andrew McIntosh, hit each other up to 100-percent harder than their Australian counterparts.

McIntosh speculated that the Australian players don’t hit each other as hard because they know they don’t have helmets and they too could be injured by an overly forceful blow.

So should football eject helmets from the game?

NFL Spokesman Greg Aiello said no.

NFL medical adviser Dr. Thom Mayer agreed in the article.

“It’s an interesting theoretical question, but I don’t think anybody would consider playing NFL football without a helmet,” he said.

I agree. I played high school football, and I never would have stepped foot on the field if I didn’t have a helmet because if all the safety gear stays the same except for the presence of helmets, someone will die from taking a shoulder pad hit to the face.

There were economic reasons to get rid of helmets pointed out in the story, primarily because the high cost of the helmets. Without them, the article postulated, financially strapped school could afford the sport.

To me, that’s a bit of a stretch. Sure, the helmets are expensive, but how much is the safety of the players’ worth to the bottom line? Give me a break. I would rather have the schools spend more money than to have the football field returned to a bloody death-zone from the 1909 season.

Neurosurgeon Julian Bailes suggested in the article that the rules be changed a bit and more heavily enforced. She thought it might be a good idea to forbid linemen from going into a three-point stance in order to eliminate them from hitting the other players head-first as they come off the line.

That might work. Some lines don’t go into a three-point stance anyway, though. Would this be really fixing the problem or just making it look like the problem was being addressed?

Obviously the already-in-place rules against helmet-to-helmet contact should be enforced more heavily, but should the referees be sanctioned if they miss a call as Dr. Cantu suggested in the WSJ article?

I don’t think so unless it is an egregiously blown call. A player doesn’t get reprimanded every time he commits such a foul, except for the penalty yards charged against the team for that one infraction.

Referees, though sometimes incredibly frustrating, are human just like the players. Let them do the jobs as best as they can.

Too much scrutiny will just slow the game too much. Football is supposed to be faster and intense. Let’s not lose that by being over critical. Let them play the game. They know what they are getting into when they join the team.

And let’s not get rid of the helmets. If we do that, it will no longer be football. Instead, it will become a lame sport like soccer (except for womens’, collegiate soccer, of which I am now a big fan).

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About toddvogts 780 Articles
My name is Todd Vogts. I am an assistant professor of media. I like the color green, riding my motorcycle, and being with my family and friends. A good book is a perfect companion for me any time, and I'm a published author and journalist. Visit my website at and follow me on Twitter at

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