The new “use of the helmet” rules are already fundamentally changing the way the game is played without a doubt. Although surging in the first week of preseason, the number of flags thrown for the new rule normalized, and as we enter the regular season, there is promise that there is some level consistency when the games actually count.
How we got to this point where this rule was necessary actually completes a circle that takes us back to the origins of the game. In the 1890s, football players would wear their hair long on top in a futile effort to protect their heads. The leather helmet was phased in shorty after, but obviously did not offer that much protection.
It wasn’t until the 1940s when plastic helmets were introduced, although they were actually banned by the NFL for a few years. Even after the transition to plastic helmets from leather, tackling techniques had not really changed. Players still wrapped up their opponents just as if they had a soft cover. The plastics used in helmets of that era were still a little soft, and there was little padding in the helmet to absorb any direct hit. While it protected the head, it was not seen as useful to deliver a blow with the helmet to an opponent. As seen here, what qualifies as a hard hit doesn’t involve the head at all.
Improvements to the helmet to increase safety did just that, but it also had the unintended consequence of becoming less safe. As plastic molds became stronger, as padding became even more absorbing of impact, the use of the helmet started to transfer the contact of the hit from the torso and shoulder area to the helmet area.
The technological advances in helmet design lead to tactical advantages for players. Defenders used the helmet to deliver a decisive blow to try to dislodge the ball. Players like Bears running back Walter Payton plowed forward for extra yardage with his trademark battering ram posture. The helmet, which was once incidental to the game, was now part of the process.
Soon, helmet manufacturers were clear to point out that the product was not being used as designed. The latest iteration on the NFL helmet warning label is no more than a cursory opt-in statement that no one really has read. It specifically calls out the potential for injury, including two separate references that the product can be lethal if not properly used.
NO HELMET CAN PREVENT SERIOUS HEAD OR NECK INJURIES A PLAYER MIGHT RECEIVE WHILE PARTICIPATING IN FOOTBALL.
Do not use this helmet to butt, ram or spear an opposing player. This is in violation of the football rules and such use can result in severe head or neck injuries, paralysis or death to you and possible injury to your opponent.
Contact in football may result in CONCUSSION-BRAIN INJURY which no helmet can prevent. Symptoms include: loss of consciousness or memory, dizziness, headache, nausea or confusion. If you have symptoms, immediately stop playing and report them to your coach, trainer and parents. Do not return to a game or practice until all symptoms are gone and you have received MEDICAL CLEARANCE. Ignoring this warning may lead to another and more serious or fatal brain injury.
If this is a product marketed by, say, the pharmaceutical industry, the warning would be in bold type, and every game would begin with the recitation of side effects from using the product. Too bad Ed Hochuli retired.
This push for safety has significantly accelerated since the death of Bengals receiver Chris Henry. His autopsy showed the degenerative brain disease CTE was already progressing as an active player. It was a sobering finding of the immediate effect the game was having on its players. As a result, fines increased and the rules have changed quickly with an emphasis on old-school fundamentals, as Football Zebras writer Rich Madrid covered last week.
And so, the game comes full circle. Football of the Baby Boomer generation will return with the Postmillennial generation that is already learning from the peewee level to “keep your head out of the game.” Those players will be coming up through college having known no other way to play. The NFL rookies today even had a significant training at higher levels of the game on keeping the head up through contact. The veterans who believe that there is no other way to play the game will eventually give way to those players who know better. Or, unfortunately, some of those veterans would be replaced due to attrition.
Images: The Graduate courtesy Embassy Pictures, Spalding Football Guide (1945).