Having gotten my "bell rung" many times in my youth, I was taken aback by a recent article in The Wall Street Journal suggesting it may be time to retire the football helmet as we know it. Leagues overseas have been trying this as a way to -- this may sound counterintuitive -- reduce concussions and other injuries. But I don't see playing helmet-less as a solution for the National Football League (NFL).
As far as my story goes, I was a scrappy player in high school, playing hard and eventually working my way onto a small college team (Division III). Perhaps that's why I received my first concussion back when I was a sophomore in high school.
Did you know that once you have a concussion it's easier to sustain other concussions? I did not. But I was lucky that I was knocked out cold on the field and sent to the hospital. If I hadn't been knocked out, I would have gotten up and shaken the cobwebs out -- I couldn't afford to miss a play, right?
Let's fast forward to my freshman year of college, three concussions into the season. That's when I received my worst concussion -- after absolutely destroying some poor soul who got in my way and "leading with my head" in the process. The resulting fourth concussion was the end of my college football career according to NCAA rules.
I still tried to play another year at an NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) school, but probably did more harm than good. Now, let's fast forward again, to today -- when I suffer from headaches, neck pain and hearing loss thanks to the concussions. For this reason, I have followed the NFL in its quest to lessen the chances of head injuries.
On Oct. 28, 2009, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke in front of the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives. Greg Aiello from the NFL was kind enough to send me a transcript of the testimony. Part of the testimony was on retired players and what the NFL is doing to help those whose pension plans were nowhere near what they are today.
The other part of the presentation was on head injuries in the NFL, noting that concussions and their effects are "a serious matter and that they require special attention and treatment." Goodell stated that "medical considerations must always come first," and I don't think you'll see many people disagreeing with the notion.
The Answer: Better Research and Education
I know that taking the football helmet out of the game as The Journal article mentions will not happen. The thinking behind the idea is that helmets create a sense of invulnerability, The Journal says. As a result, players collide harder and more frequently, the piece states. Removing them from play could reduce the number of collisions that cause increasing damage over a player's career, the rationale goes.
But the piece takes a look at what impact no helmets has had on the Australian Football League (AFL). Yes, AFL is rough. But it isn't the war in the trenches like every down in the NFL. You can't have the big uglies up front taking each other on with no protection on their heads. The NFL is taking the right steps, through better research and better education.
The equipment available today is amazing, starting with Riddell. This company makes 82% of the helmets worn in the NFL and 62% of the helmets in Division I football (according to this Business Wire article). This same article notes that a three-year study of high school football players wearing the Riddell Revolution helmet (as seen here) were 31% less likely to suffer a concussion than those wearing a traditional football helmet. This study was conducted in 2006.
The Journal notes that the NFL is conducting independent testing of helmets that focus on "more accurate and comparative information about concussive forces." These are all great steps. When teamed with education for coaches and trainers on how to handle concussions (led by none other than John Madden, the legendary NFL coach and later a TV analyst), they should help lessen the amount of concussions and players losing their career to concussions.
A "What-If" Scenario That Won't Happen
Yes, taking the helmets out of football may cut the number of headhunters out there, throwing their bodies around without care for their own health. But it won't eliminate them altogether. In fact, taking helmets off the gridiron will lead to more injuries and a lot fewer viewers.
New rules, new equipment and new education will help lessen concussions -- far more than eliminating helmets will. In defense of The Journal article, the authors aren't suggesting that eliminating helmets will stop concussions. They're presenting a "what if" scenario. A "what if" that will never happen. A "what if" that Riddell can't let happen because most of its business comes from selling helmets to the NFL.
UPDATE: After this story was originally published on Nov. 15, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to NFL teams on Nov. 24 noting that the two doctors who served as co-chairmen of the league's committee on brain injuries resigned and that the commissioner will be looking at potential rule changes to "reduce head impacts." The NFL is looking for replacements for the doctors, who had come under attack from the NFL Players Association and Congress. These doctors had criticized the research done linking head injuries to an increased risk for dementia and cognitive decline.
The resignations are important, but Goodell's assertion that the NFL will continue to research safer equipment (mainly helmets) and other steps the NFL will take are also key. Perhaps most important is the public service message that will be "directed primarily at young athletes, their parents and coaches on the importance of head injury awareness."
This has to be done. Football players and all those associated need to know the risks surrounding head injuries -- what we once thought was a "bell-ringing" and something you could shake off isn't that at all. I would rather concussions be brought to the forefront through this education rather than through head injuries to some of the NFL's biggest stars -- and to those young players who'll never be stars but just enjoy playing.
Mark Fightmaster is a financial blogger for DailyFinance.com and BloggingStocks.com. This father of three really did play college football (almost had to because of the last name) and turned to a life of financial writing after spending five years teaching.