Take Down, Rethinking First Take: Football Helmets and Concussions

Taking Down First Take:  Football Helmets and Concussions

20 years ago I saw Webster Slaughter run out-of-bounds.  He was a small wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns.  A defensive back hit him out-of-bounds by diving at him.  He just caught the edge of his elbow with the crown of his helmet.  The play was over yet Slaughter received a season ending injury.  Slaughter had his arm broken as a result of the impact of the hard helmet on his elbow.

Immediately I asked myself why football helmets were made of hard plastic?  Other than looking good, it made no sense.  Hard plastic makes costly injuries inevitable.  Had the helmet been padded on the outside it would not have caused the injury.

The hard helmets caused savvy coaches to teach defensive players to tackle by placing their helmet on the ball.  Since heads tend to be inside helmets, what these coaches were saying was use your head like battering ram to dislodge the ball and bring down the ball carrier.  Once you get the idea to use your head as a battering ram don’t concussions become inevitable?

Skip Bayless remarked that football players know what they are getting into.  So they should not be compensated for their injuries.  That was the implication of his thought.  His view is that the players prior to the studies on football and concussions deserve compensation but not the current players.  This is actually contrary to law.  Football players are employees and subject to the Worker’s Compensation laws in the state that they play football in.  Of course the owner’s are quite willing to out source the costs of managing chronic degenerative brain diseases to either their insurance companies, the player’s union, the families or the states.  However, the law says they are responsible.

According to the law they are completely, that is 100%, responsible for the costs of treatment and disability caused by injuries in their work place.  The football field is where these guys work.  Any injuries are fully compensated by law.  Both disability and treatment are covered.  It is the law Skip.  If the NFL has deceived them they can file law suits for further damages.  The NFL has an obligation to make the work place safe.

So an important question is how these injuries can be prevented.  Since an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, first a few sensible rules would decrease the amount and severity of head injuries.  Then studying the issue with money supplied by the NFL and major colleges would examine the nature of the injuries, how many blows to the head a brain can take before it shows signs of damage and how much rest is needed when mild to moderate concussions occur.

Then the engineering of the helmet must change.  Helmets are designed to protect the skull.  This is well and good, but the brain is a much more sensitive organ than the bone of the skull.  For those that might not know, the brain floats in a closed bowl (the skull) filled with a fluid.  It moves independently of the skull.  Concussions occur from the counter coup phenomena in football like in whiplash.  The brain has momentum, the skull stops, the brain bangs into one side of the skull and then bounces into the opposite side.  Thus both sides of the brain receive injuries.

Just looking at the helmet I am guessing that 2 inches of padding on the top with a hard surface underneath that disperses force throughout the helmet would be a start.  Shoe companies and car companies have spent lots of time looking at how to disperse stress from impact.  Their technology applied to the helmet with further research might provide a much safer piece of equipment.

Putting the skull in a kind suspension that created a cushion of air or fluid between the hard surface and the skull also seems logical.  This would mirror the construction of the skull and brain.

Obviously this is an area that can be studied and certainly the football teams of major universities generate enough cash to fund lots of research.

The two points I am making here is that first Skip is wrong about players “knowing what they are getting into” and second the current helmet technology is totally inadequate and can be improved.

A few sensible rule changes would be:  no tackling by putting the head on the ball, thus this would end the battering of runners by the defense trying to force a fumble.  Fumbles should only occur in the open field or during the initial hit.  Holding the runner up while other players batter him to force of fumble just encourages injuries, is very boring and cheapens the game.

Current helmets do not prevent concussions.  That seems to be the consensus of researchers.  However, that is because they are designed wrong.  Work on football helmets will benefit bicycling and other sports.  It seems like an idea waiting to hatch.  Finally how about putting sensors inside the helmet to measure the forces involved?  It is not that hard.

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