American football may ban helmets
Dr John York, chairman of the NFL’s health and safety advisory committee and co-chairman of the 49ers, tells the BBC that he can see a time without helmets.
“Can I see a time without helmets? Yes,” said Dr John York. “It’s not around the corner, but I can see it”.
There has been a growing cultural awareness of the issues surrounding concussion which has helped to bring the issue to the fore.
NFL players have been wearing the distinctive hard-shell helmets for 70 years. American football players first started wearing head leather protection at the turn of the 20th century when skull fractures and neck injuries were a significant and sometimes fatal problem. In the 1940 hard plastic helmets entered the game with facemasks becoming commonplace in the early 1960s.
By the next decade, extra cushioning was added and all helmets had to meet minimum impact-resistance standards. Although these developments were intended to improve safety, they also emboldened players to make bigger hits, often using their helmets like battering rams.
Over the last 5 years the NFL has tried to reduce the risk of head injuries and recently reached an almost $1bn legal settlement with ex-players suffering with head trauma.
York says the NFL have invested in medical research and worked with manufacturers to improve helmets. In 2012 they launched, “Heads Up Football” an education campaign targeted at ‘a safer and smarter way to play and teach youth football’.
Funded in part by the NFL Foundation, Heads Up Football is designed to change the culture around America’s favorite sport and enhance player safety at the youth level. It promotes coaching education, concussion recognition and response, heat preparedness and hydration, sudden cardiac arrest, proper equipment fitting and Heads Up Blocking and Tackling.
The USA Football’s Heads Up Football program focuses on eight key areas:
- Coaching education: All coaches within an organization or program are required to complete USA Football’s nationally accredited Coaching Certification Course, which trains them in important health and safety issues along with the game’s fundamentals.
- Equipment Fitting: Particularly the proper fitting of the helmet and shoulder pads.
- Concussion recognition and response: Employing Centres for Disease Control and Prevention protocols.
- Heat preparedness and hydration: Establishing approved protocols from the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut.
- Sudden cardiac arrest: Having plans and procedures in place in case of cardiac events.
- Heads Up Tackling: Teaching the fundamentals of this all-player skill in a safer way.
- Heads Up Blocking: Teaching the fundamentals of contact for offensive players without the ball.
- Player Safety Coach: Appointed by a school or organization, this individual ensures compliance with Heads Up Football player safety protocols, coach certification and continuing education with coaches, players and parents.
In 2013, the NFL and USA Football collaborated on Heads Up Moms Clinics to provide helpful information to moms who have children who are considering or play tackle football. The clinics included classroom instruction on proper equipment fitting, concussion awareness lectures and the heads up tackling technique as well as participating in on-field drills.
USA Football trainers, doctors and football moms join the event to discuss the topics on concussion awareness, proper football techniques and educating them overall about proper awareness when it comes to health in sports.
York claims that these actions have led to a 36% reduction in concussions over three years and a 52% fall in helmet-to-helmet impacts.
The chairman of the National Football League’s health and safety advisory commission believes American football could ban helmets in the future.
The idea of banning helmets has been raised by some doctors and ex-players in recent years without ever really being taken seriously. Some experts think helmets give the players a false sense of security.
She is believed by some that not wearing helmets would discourage players from leading with their heads when making tackles. Dr York explained that playing without helmets would require numerous rule changes, including doing away with the three-point stance and forcing players in an upright position at the start of each play.
Kick-offs were moved further up the field to reduce the number of high-speed impacts and helmet-first tackles have been banned. More protection has also been given to players unable to protect themselves, such as quarterbacks in the act of throwing.
Each game now has at least 27 “health officials” on the sidelines, as well as an independent expert assessing television pictures to make sure injured players are taken off.
These changes have not been enough to stop two San Francisco 49ers from retiring early because of concerns about brain injuries.
Right tackle Anthony Davis announced in June 2015 that he would not play football in 2015 after missing four games the previous season following a concussion. He released a statement saying “I’m simply doing what’s best for my body as well as my mental health at this time in my life.”
Chris Borland was a rising star, with no history of concussions, who quit after just one season in the league. The 24-year-old linebacker feared his health could suffer from the long-term effects of concussion and walked away from a four-year deal worth a reported £2m.
So would a game without helmets be safer? We may see one day.