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. ’