Monday, October 25, 2010

Making Football Safer

Former Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka has proposed an interesting solution to the growing problem of head injuries in football.

“If you want to change the game and get it back to where people aren't striking with the head and using the head as a weapon, take the mask off the helmet,” Ditka recently said. “A lot of pretty boys aren’t going to stick their face in there [without masks].”

Good idea, Coach, but why not eliminate helmets altogether?

It seems counterintuitive, but banning helmets might reduce head injuries. Modern helmets have given football players a false sense of security. Take away their headgear and they would be much less likely to, as Coach Ditka said, use the head as a weapon.

Players are taught to tackle with their heads up, and for a simple reason: It makes it easier for them to keep their eyes on their target. It also has the desirable side effect of preventing head and neck injuries.

But all too often players drop their heads when they tackle, effectively turning themselves into human missiles. The result, frequently, is a concussion--or worse. Just this month, a Rutgers University player was paralyzed after attempting to make a tackle headfirst.

Head injuries have long been a concern in football. At the turn of the last century, dangerous formations such as the infamous “flying wedge” were banned in an effort to make the game safer.

Helmets, however, are a relatively recent innovation. Some National Football League players went bareheaded well into the 1930s. The league didn’t even make helmets mandatory until the 1943 season. And the helmets the players wore back then were made of leather and afforded little protection relative to today’s behemoth headgear. So players still tackled with their heads up.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that a plastic helmet devised by the Riddell Company became popular. This technological “advance” may have done more harm than good. The hard shells began to make players feel invincible. Tacklers turned into missiles.

A helmet ban could be phased in, implemented first in youth leagues, then in high schools, then colleges, and, finally, the pros. It wouldn’t take that long, perhaps fewer than ten years. The generations pass quickly in football. This fall’s college freshmen were born in 1992.

Banning helmets would be a radical change, of course. Football “purists” would surely decry such a move as heretical. But if the NFL is as serious about reducing head injuries as it claims, the league needs to consider radical solutions. Besides, even players without helmets would still make bone-crunching tackles. They would just make them more safely.