Should the NFL Go Back to Leather Helmets?

In light of today’s sad new involving Junior Seau, which appears like it might be the latest development in the sad history of football and brain diseases, I’d like to revisit an idea that I’ve had for some time as means of curtailing the threats to brain safety which appear inherent in modern football. My proposal: Go back to the old fashioned leather helmets.

Most people know that back in the 50’s and earlier the regular NFL helmet looked like this. These helmets were replaced by hard plastic helmets in the 1960’s due to fractured skulls which were a common byproduct of the pile-ups that typified the game in the pre-Superbowl era.

The game of football has changed quite a bit since the 1960’s and the phase out of the old leather helmet. The game today involves much fewer pile-ups and instead features more collisions that occur between player running at full speed. In particular, one feature of the game that has become more and more prevalent over the last 20 years is the decline in the traditional wrap-up takle which was replaced with “spearing” for lack of a better word.

What I refer to when I use the term “spearing” is the use by a defensive payer of his helmet to serve as a blunt force instrument to deliver a blow to offensive player and knock him down. I believe that this practice has been made directly possible by the modern helmet. Anyone who has ever played the game (as I did) or has seen a professional helmet up close knows that they are essentially as hard a rock. Thus, whatever protective value the modern helmet has is equaled by its function as weapon with which to inflict devastating hits on opposing players.

What I submit for your consideration is that this use of the present type of helmet is what has caused the epidemic of concussions and brain injuries in the modern game. If we were to take away the ability of players to use their helmets as weapons to deliver crunching blows, we would greatly reduce the instance of traumatic brain injuries. I believe that the reinstatement of the leather helmet would achieve this goal.

If the leather helmet were brought back, players would have enough padding to protect them from the incidental contact caused by tackling and blocking (a la rugby), but they would not have a sufficiently hard object on their head to use as a weapon. Thus, the “spear” type tackling would be eliminated. Additionally, the original concern which lead to the replacement of the old helmet (skull fractures), is not the concern that it once was because the many rule changes and changes to the game in the intervening decades have largely eliminated pile-ups, which were the cause of the fractures. Add these two factors together and you have a helmet which will not allow for the current hits that are responsible for brain injuries, but would sufficiently address player safety.

Thus, in sum, I believe that by eliminating the modern helmet and its function as a blunt force weapon, and instead replacing it with the old-fashioned NFL helmet, the NFL would be able to greatly curtail the current epidemic of brain injuries related to modern football. ’


Interestingly, I’m not the only one who has had this idea.

Conclusion: Leather helmets are just as safe at absorbing blows as modern helmets. This article ultimately comes down against the idea,however from the point of view of my argument, the article fails to consider how a different helmet might change player behavior.

Any reason all links are going to the same photo?

I’m posting on my wife’s Mac. I probably screwed up the shortcut. Can a mod fix this?

Here is the NY Times article about the leather helmets causing skull fractures:

Here is the Time article on leather helmets vs. modern helmets:

I’m not entirely convinced that plastic helmets are the primary cause of the concussions / chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Spearing is undoubtedly one cause, but plenty of offensive players – even “skill position” players, who usually try to avoid making head-to-head contact – are suffering from these injuries. A number of quarterbacks suffered multiple concussions, including Jim McMahon and Steve Young, and former wide receiver Chris Henry, who died in a traffic accident, was found to already have CTE at age 26.

I’m not at all convinced that a leather helmet would be any better at preventing a concussion caused when the player’s head hits the ground on a hard tackle (which seems to be how most QBs get concussions), and I suspect it might actually be worse.

Although hitting the ground is certainly a factor in QB concussions, I don’t think it was necessarily the primary cause in the case of the guys you cite. Aikman, Young, McMahon and the like all played in the era when drilling the QB after every pass was an accepted part of the game.

As far as WR and RB’s who takes more hits (often to some part of the head) from defenders leading with rock hard helmets? Though they aren’t the ones delivering the hits, the offensive players suffer just as much from (legal) hits like this one.

Quite possibly. However, it will never happen, as the NFL’s motivation is not to reduce the number of injuries, but rather to create the impression that they are doing all they can in a way that fans and juries will find convincing.

Hard, plastic helmets look and feel safer and more protective, and thus going back to leather helmets will look like … well, going backward. The idea that the less protective helmet is actually safer because it curtails risky behavior is too counterintuitive for many people to grok.
There are some studies indicating that laws against texting while driving actually increase the number of accidents (because people now hold their phones in their laps while texting). Will any politician hoping to get re-elected ever propose repealing said laws? Hell no. His job is not to prevent accidents, but to convince voters he wants to.

Same same.

I’m entirely convinced that they aren’t the primary cause. The problem in football is all the collisions, not just guys leading with their heads. It’s true that bad things can happen when people think they are completely safe and they are not, but a helmet that provides less protection (none, really) is going to make things worse, not better. If you don’t believe me, imagine what kickoff returns would look like if the players were running at each other full steam and wearing leather helmets. The solution is better safety technology and possibly other rule changes, not technology that didn’t work very well when the game was slower and played by smaller players.

I think the underlying problem is that the size, speed and skill of the athletes has outpaced the basic rules of the game.

Football: These guys are just too big, fast and strong. A guy the size of Dick Budkus wouldn’t even get a look today as a middle linebacker. They hit with power and speed that no game is designed for. The skeleton and the muscles might be able to take it but the brain and the internal organs can’t.

Basketball: 6’11" used to be a monster. Now a guy that size might be a forward rather than the dominant center. The basket is much too low. The point guards can dunk.

Hockey: Forget about guys like Dave Keon. They are history. Today’s players are guys that are big, fast and take up too much of the ice. The game would be better at 4-on-4 but the players union doesn’t want to lose the jobs.

It’s gotten to the point where, to make and analogy, we have major league baseball players playing on a Little League field. It’s a recipe for disaster and we are starting to see the results.

I think that the key is that last part, the game is played at a much faster speed and by much larger players than it used to be. I agree that helmets probably aren’t the cause of the problem. I think that if they eliminated or drastically scaled back the amount of padding that player wore, we might see fewer of the collisions that are causing these problems. Players might be a little more hesitant to totally lay into a huge crushing hit if they had to do it without the armor.

Either that, or start limiting the size, strength, and speed of the players. A little Harrison Bergeron style football, anyone?

Because when I think of Harrison Bergeron, I think “fun.”

When I first started teaching in 1985, the head football coach at that high school expressed exactly these same thoughts about leather versus plastic helmets. Mickey, is that you?

How about plastic helmets, or metal, that aren’t indestructible. A material that deforms after a certain threshold would transfer some of the impact energy into the deformation and visibly show that a significant blow was received.

I have no idea what material would be able to do this.


I don’t think the answer is in changing the helmet. First I would get rid of “spearing”. That is, making a tackle by hitting the ball carrier as hard as possible. You tackle by wrapping the guy up, or pushing him out of bounds with your hands. The rule is you have to lead with your hands, either by touching first with your hands, or having both hands around the carrier in an attempt to grasp. Leading with a shoulder, forearm or head is an automatic penalty. Incidental 5 yards, intentional 15. Penalty waived if the defender is engaged by a blocker at the time of the tackle.

Second, reduce the impact at the line. No linemen other than the offensive center can have a hand on the ground.

What about the same padding that’s already on the inside of the helmet also mounted on the exterior? It might look funny like a bunch of bobble heads out on the field but wouldn’t the impact absorption help with head injuries?

You could just paint the logos on the padding - although they would no longer be sleek or shiny.

Weight limits for each position is about the only thing that can stop it from happening like that. The leather helmets are an interesting idea too, but you’d need some sound science behind it, because that’d be a lightning rod in any potential lawsuit.

Bicycle and equestrian helmets are designed for ‘one event’ protection - meaning they absorb the shock from one large blow, and then should be discarded. I wonder the effect of football helmets being made of disposable materials (teams would need to keep a stock of them on the sidelines).

Relating to the OP - how do other contact sports that do not use helmets stack up against American football regarding head injuries? I am thinking rugby or Austrailian rules football. Rather than a leather helmet, no helmet at all. I am sure the nature and structure of American football would be dramatically altered.

Side note: part of me thinks the viewing public wants to see high speed collisions and hits, and the NFL is happy to deliver this to the blood-thirsty masses.

Don’t they do something similar with cars now? They crumple up like accordions to absorb the shock of crashes so the passengers inside aren’t flung around as much. Just think of the brain as the passenger in a car crash, the helmets are designed like old school metal bumpers meant to protect with their toughness with no regard to the momentum of the player and what it does to the brain. Disposable anti shock helmets might work better.

I registered just to weigh in on this topic. Developing better helmets that protect from catastrophic head injuries won’t help. Helmets already do that. Not many players suffer from fractured skulls anymore. What “some” people don’t understand is that it’s not the outside blow that causes the trauma, but the brain bouncing around inside the skull from the abrupt change in velocity. No helmet, unless over sized and equipped with crumple zones will gradually slow the head and brain to a safe enough speed to reduce bruising and trauma.

I think going back to a helmet that simply protects an athlete from a skull fracture and a face mask that simply protects a player from losing teeth, broken nose and a broken jaw might make players more aware of keeping one’s head safe.

It is a false sense of security to buckle that “hat” on your head. I played 4 years of HS football and that feeling of invincibility with that helmet on is troublesome now that I think about it. Sure we were told not to lead with our heads, but at that time it really wasn’t to prevent head injuries so much as to limit neck injuries. Spearing was a no-no. I can also remember strapping on the “Not for competitive use” helmets that came with a ball and tee. We would play like the pros as kids, thinking we were safe.

So couple the 4 and 5 bar face masked “better helmet” with faster, heavier and more fearless football player and you’ll have brain injuries. Simple as that. Unless you draw constant awareness to injury “during play” you will get players that include their head as part of their equipment. As an Eagle fan, be nice, I used to cringe every time Brian Dawkins would lead with his head when tackling. Some players can cope with brain injuries, others cannot. Only time will tell, but in the mean time rules, fines, and “better helmets” won’t keep players from concussions and brain injuries. Only immediate awareness can stop a player from putting themselves in a position to really hurt themselves.