Playing the game without proper gear would be dangerous, and could even result in the death of a player. While there is no guarantee of safety from the proper protective gear, the chances of injury will allegedly be less if a football player wears a helmet and other protective items. In 1968, for example, there were 32 fatalities in organized football (NOCSAE, n.d.). Because of the deaths and injuries, NOCSAE was formed in 1969 to analyze the problem and start making recommendations for injury reduction in organized and sandlot football.
In 1970, the real work began to establish a standard of safety for football helmets. Quality control became very important, and many of the models of helmets that were used in the past were either eliminated or drastically changed (NOCSAE, n.d.). A test was conducted in 1975 using the new criteria, and nearly 85% of the helmets that were used during that time failed - so it was clearly time to do more work in the laboratory to see what the problem was and how it could be corrected. Changes continued to be made, and standards continued to be adjusted. In 1990, for the first time since reports started to be created in 1931, there were no recorded fatalities (NOCSAE, n.d.). Serious head injuries in football have also dropped to less than 1 per 100,000, which is down 88% from where it was before the new rules for football helmets were enacted (NOCSAE, n.d.). Because the risk of paralysis was still high, rules were changed to prohibit using the head as a weapon or as a first point of contact when it came to tackling and blocking.
Preventing Injuries in Football
Originally, football helmets were designed to protect against things like fractured skulls and other catastrophic problems. However, recent research indicates that there may be another problem - and it is one that helmets are not able to protect against. Concussions happen even when players are not hit that hard, and they are a problem because players get hit over and over again during the course of a game (Albergotti & Wang, 2009; Toney, 2011). The brain damage that many football players ultimately end up with later in life could be from all of the small hits that they receive throughout their careers, and headgear will not actually protect them from that. Some researchers even think that the helmets that players are wearing today may be more a part of the problem than they are a part of the solution (Albergotti & Wang, 2009). The reason behind that opinion is that players may feel as though the helmet will completely protect them. The more invincible they feel, the more likely they will be to take risks and to take more hits that will add up over time.
The main issue is that there is absolutely no way that the helmet can stop the brain from taking the small hits over and over. While there are fewer serious injuries, such as fractured skulls, but there are not that many fewer concussions (Toney, 2009; Kulas, 2011). It is a good thing that there has been a reduction in the number of deaths, paralyzed individuals, and skull fractures, but discussing only those issues may not be enough to really understand the dangers of playing football. If players were to stop wearing helmets, would that actually make them safer? The jury is still out on whether it would be safer for players to avoid helmets, but new studies indicate that there are clearly pros and cons - which was something that was not considered before (Albergotti & Wang, 2009). One of the ways in which helmets could be made to prevent more concussions and brain injuries would be to make the padding much thicker and the helmets much larger. That would look odd, of course, and be heavy and uncomfortable. Because of the extra size and weight, it could also make the players more prone to injuring their necks (Albergotti & Wang, 2009).
While it would be nice to lower the number of concussions, it would not be a good idea to offset one injury with another. In other words, what would it solve to trade a lower level of concussions for a higher level of injuries to players' necks. That could result in paralysis, and in permanent pain and suffering that would not be easily alleviated. The Australian Football League (AFL) has been used as a comparison to the NFL, and the results of that comparison are quite interesting. The AFL players do not wear any of the protective "body armor" that American players wear, but they do have fewer head injuries (Albergotti & Wang, 2009). They injure their shoulders and knees more, but those issues are not as significant as injuries that are related to the brain. It is not at all likely that helmets will be banned, or that some manifestations of the sport (professional, college, high school, etc.) will decide not to use them. However, not using helmets could potentially mean that players would understand the risks of injury much better than they do now, and that would stop them from hitting with their face and head - thereby reducing the number of head injuries.
Head injury reduction is highly important, because the affects of it can be far-reaching and long-term. Players who had concussions in their careers were more likely to have depression, and they also reported that they had trouble with memory, speech impediments, concentration, headaches, and neurological problems (Head, 2010; Kulas, 2011). Not all of the players who have experienced a concussion have these problems, of course, but the more a person plays football, the more concussions that person has, and the more he is hit in the head, the higher his risk of these difficulties - and they do not go away over time. Once a person has sustained a brain injury, the changes that he or she experiences are often permanent. They can be minor, or they can seriously affect the quality of that person's life and what he or she is able to do with the future. That is worth considering when it comes to playing football and how helmets can be changed to keep players safer.
The Future of the Football Helmet
Since helmets are not going to be banned anytime soon, the consideration has to be put on what should be done to make them safer in the future. One company created a helmet they called "The Gladiator," but the concern was that it would not be worn because image is everything in sports and the new helmet did not have the right image (Lukas, 2008). According to Carlson (2010), there is more that has to be done to the future of helmets. They need to be more like NASCAR, that instituted the HANS device to protect the heads and necks of drivers when they crashed. By doing that, the side-to-side head movement of the players would be restricted, as would their ability to move their heads up and down once they were turned to the side (Carlson, 2010). While not stopping all of the injuries that could occur, the HANS device could cut down on head and neck problems. However, it will also severely restrict how much the players can see and what they are able to do, so the game itself could be degraded somewhat and also slowed down.
A 2011 advancement in helmets, called the Bulwark, may be just the thing to keep the NFL moving forward and protect players without requiring bulky devices. The helmet is 25% lighter than the helmets that are used now, and designed to reduce concussions (Reisinger, 2011). The multi-layered design is one of the newest advances in helmet technology, and will help protect the brains of players. It also has panels that are customizable, for both safety and style. If there are vulnerable areas, extra padding can be added - and the colors can be changed, as well (Reisinger, 2011). The designs are currently only prototypes, though, and the helmet has not yet been built. Because this new design is not coming from a company that has a lot of market share (and money) behind it, that also puts it at a disadvantage. That does not mean, however, that it will not be possible to break into the market with a helmet that is truly innovative and that can clearly protect players from concussions and other types of brain injuries that they have seen in the past.
Overall, football helmets have reduced the number of catastrophic injuries that occur in the sport. There are fewer deaths today, and there are fewer players who end up paralyzed. That is very good news, but it does not tell the whole story. Concussions are also a big problem for football players, and the helmets…