Eliminate helmets in football: legitimate concerns from a genuine fan

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The San Francisco Chronicle ran a series two weeks ago titled “The Future of Football.” It explored what the sport may look like 20 or 30 years from now in light of concerns about risks of brain trauma and dwindling youth participation. Ultimately, the series offered several proposals for how the sport could reform without sacrificing the integrity of the game.

One of the main arguments that the author of the final section of the series, Al Saracevic, made was that the game must evolve, explaining, “I believe a move toward a more wide-open game, played with more skill, less people and less equipment, is the path to the future.”

I share the same concerns about football’s future and agree that a more open, skilled game with less equipment is ultimately the solution, so let’s take things a step further. What do proponents of drastic reform in the sport mean exactly when we say “less equipment?”

To some, it means helmets with improved designs or lighter pads, but to me, it’s about doing away with helmets and pads all together. It’s a radical proposal, but if the game is to truly evolve into a safer version of its current self, then this is one of the surest ways it could be accomplished.

Simply put, helmets and pads make an intrinsically violent sport more brutal and less safe.

I’m far from the first person to make this observation, as former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward advocated for the same position, arguing, “If you want to prevent concussions, take the helmet off. … When you put a helmet on, you’re going to use it as a weapon, just like you use shoulder pads as a weapon.” Even former Bears coach Mike Ditka, a disciple of smash-mouth football, advocated for the sport to do away with facemasks in order to limit head injuries.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of New Hampshire found that regular helmetless tackling drills reduced the number of overall head impacts by 28 percent. Dr. Eric Swartz, who led the study, explained that “in football, there are so many head impacts because their heads are protected. … It offers a false sense of security.”

When you take away helmets and pads, you force players to instinctively protect areas of their body that they otherwise wouldn’t. Your natural instincts simply won’t let you tackle headfirst.

It’s too easy for players to use their helmets to bring down opponents, rather than making a safer, form tackle. The helmet serves as a substitute for proper technique and a surer way to create highlight hits.

I can say from personal experience that helmets and pads made me feel invincible when I played high school football. The illusion of protection brought with a soft shell of plastic allowed me to dive literally headfirst into the game. My teammates and I would compare scuffs and scratches on our helmets as if they were badges of honor. The hard crack of a helmet-crushing hit was something to celebrate, not anything to wince at.

The increasing amount of scientific evidence that links concussions or subconcussive hits with degenerative brain diseases, such as CTE, speaks to just how wrong my perception was at the time.

Will taking away helmets and pads completely eliminate concussions from the sport? Of course not. Rugby and Aussie Rules Football are played without any padding or helmets but still have plenty of issues with head injuries. However, we don’t see nearly as many high-profile cases of former players committing suicide or being diagnosed with early onset dementia.

Would people still watch football without the helmets and pads?

I’m sure it would be difficult for most people to accept such a dramatic change. Plenty would see it as another example of “softening” American culture. Others would see it as a different sport entirely. As a fan myself, I would have a hard time adjusting to a game that would look so incredibly different from the one I grew up watching.

We have to ask ourselves — what price are we willing to pay to indulge in what is really a form of entertainment? This sport is and will always be violent, but what level of brutality are we willing to accept before we transform the game?

“Better” helmets won’t save the sport. No helmets just might.

Rory O’Toole writes the Thursday column on the transformation of athletes and sports media into the cultural conversation. Contact him at [email protected].