The potential solution to serious head injuries in football is counter-intuitive


For any serious observer of professional (or college) football, it is obvious that the association between sports and serious, long-term brain damage is potentially an existential threat. Hollywood has made movies about the connection, many former NFL players are having their brains autopsied and showing signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and parents increasingly seem to be steering their kids away from tackling football at the youth level:

In September (2019), the NFSHSA experienced its first decline in high school athletic participation in 30 years. The number fell from around 7.98 million to around 7.94 million – a difference of 43,395 – with football being the biggest contributor to the drop.

Sport clearly has a problem.

Over the past 5 or 6 years, the NFL has taken several steps to try to demonstrate that they are aware of the issue and care about it. They changed the rules to try to minimize helmet-to-helmet contact and heavily penalized it when it occurs. They have protocols in place that require medical evaluation for any serious head contact. These collisions are no longer just written off as a player “ringing their bell”.

They’ve been working to add a range of helmet designs that ostensibly reduce the likelihood of brain trauma when these hits occur. And, this offseason, they added a requirement that players in certain positions wear “goalie caps” – essentially padded coverings on their helmets – to try to minimize the likelihood of head collisions resulting from accidental collisions in the pre-season.

This all seems to go in the right direction to reduce concussions, but what if some of them aren’t?

Raise the red flag

In many ways, our default response to trying to reduce or prevent injuries is often to gradually improve our defenses against them. In football, this can be seen dramatically with the evolution from a thin leather cap and minimal padding 100 years ago to the gladiators clad in space-age materials we’ve seen occupy the grill over the past half century.

And I suspect most fans would see this as progress in the mission to keep players safe. But what if this is not the case? Informed by the ongoing discussions in the boxing world, I’ve pondered this question ever since the head injury controversy began to escalate – perhaps the last decade or so – and I defended the perspective that one way to reduce serious head injuries in football is to actually start removing some of the armour.

Take off the indestructible plastic helmet and metal face mask, and you’ll see plenty of players putting their heads in intentional contact – for obvious reasons. This perspective is not uniquely mine, of course.

I said a long time ago if you want to change the game take the mask off the helmet,” Mike Ditka said on NBC Sports. “It’s going to change the game a lot. If you want to change the game and bring it back to where people don’t hit their heads and use their heads as a weapon, take the mask off the helmet.

And, increasingly, there is a body of research that seems to point in this direction.

So, I was fascinated to wake up this morning and see that at least one NFL head coach was thinking along the same lines.

New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh isn’t calling for the abolition of helmets, but he does raise concerns parallel to those I’ve outlined above regarding new goalie caps:

He worries that players will get into the habit of using their heads more than they otherwise would, given that the Guardian Cap lessens the impact.

I think because of the soft hit it allows players to use their heads a bit more“Saleh said. “I think the first time they take it off – anyone who’s played football knows the first time you take your helmet off or you hit the helmet or you have a collision, it there is a shock. I think if you wait for the first game for that clash to happen. . . . I don’t know, time will tell. It’s just interesting with these Guardian Caps and what exactly are we trying to accomplish.

In the same way that modern helmets give players the feeling that their head is safe within these highly engineered boundaries, Saleh suggests that the extra padding provided by goalkeeper caps potentially lulls players into the false sense that contact with the head is not so bad. , and that there could in fact be After head injuries as a result when players return to play without the caps.

I think that’s a very clever idea, and he’s probably right.

Well, why not just impose staking caps permanently, so the rebound effect never happens? I think that’s a pretty likely outcome over the next two years. So what is the problem?

Let’s say goalie caps reduce the effect of impact by 10% (the number quoted above), but increase the level of comfort players feel being a bit more reckless with their head by 15 %. It is still quite possible to easily imagine a scenario where the severity of hits decreases a bit but the frequency of those hits increases enough to nullify or even reverse these gains.

It is not enough to test the impact performance of helmets in the laboratory. As Saleh so critically points out, what matters most is how these tools are deployed in the real world, by real players, not doctors, like the NFL’s Allen Sills, who doesn’t didn’t appreciate Saleh’s worrying lack of faith:

“The brain doesn’t acclimate to head impacts,” Sills said. “The Guardian Cap helps mitigate these forces at a time in the season when we see the greatest concentration of them.”

I commend Saleh for raising the issue, and I hope that, rather than pursuing a solitary path of increasing defensive gear escalation, that the league will give serious attention to a much less obvious potential solution. , in order to save its players, save themselves, and save the game we all love so much.


What do you think the league should do about concussions?

  • 19%
    Don’t change anything

    (23 votes)

  • 17%
    Warrant Keeper Caps

    (20 votes)

  • 38%
    Towards a helmet-free future

    (45 votes)

  • 13%
    Something else (to say in the comments)

    (16 votes)

116 voices in total

Vote now


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