Change in helmets needed for 2011
If football wants to make a fundamental change in protecting players from neurological harm -- and to avoid being regulated out of business by Congress -- rules tinkering won't do. Radical change is required.
What's needed is to rethink the helmet, making it safer for both the player who wears it and the player being hit. Here's how: Put padding on the outside of the helmet, so the helmet stops being a weapon.
Pick up any recently manufactured football helmet from high-quality names Riddell and Schutt, or from Rawlings, which will re-enter the football helmet market next year. Slam it down on a workbench -- your arm will vibrate. The polycarbonate outer shell of a modern football helmet strikes like a sledgehammer. The modern helmet is stronger than the clubs warriors beat each other with in the Middle Ages.
Put a modern football helmet on your head -- it feels like a weapon. No surprise, then, that knowing they are wearing weapons on their heads, football players use helmets in that way.
So pad the outside. It's been tried before, and it worked.
Mark Kelso, a safety for the Bills from 1986 to 1993, wore an outer-padded helmet as a starter in four Super Bowls and finished with 30 career NFL interceptions. Many highly drafted, highly paid safeties wish they could say they had a career as good as Kelso did. Steve Wallace, an offensive tackle for the 49ers from 1986 to 1997, wore an outer-padded helmet and made the Pro Bowl. Many highly drafted, highly paid tackles wish they could say they played as well as Wallace did. You can wear an outer-padded helmet and be a very effective football player -- while doing less harm.
Kelso went to outer padding because he'd sustained two severe concussions and been advised to give up football. "The Bills' trainer knew an inventor who had been tinkering with padding," Kelso told me last week. "With padding, I played an additional five seasons, almost 100 more games, and sustained only one concussion, which wasn't a helmet-to-helmet hit -- someone kneed my head. Absolutely the padding made it safer for me and safer for the players I was hitting. You can't use an outer-padded helmet as a weapon. Pound a padded helmet against your own knee; it doesn't hurt. Do that with a standard polycarbonate shell helmet, and you'll howl in pain. If both players were wearing this in a helmet-to-helmet hit, it wouldn't be anywhere near as bad."
Spectators and TV announcers made fun of Kelso and Wallace for resembling the Coneheads on "Saturday Night Live," although eventually the inventor, industrial designer Bert Straus, made outer padding less conspicuous. In recent years, he's been trying to design an entire helmet based on a soft outer surface.
"The only real objection to the idea was aesthetic," Kelso said. "Players thought the padding didn't look cool, so they didn't want it. I started calling the padding 'resilient' rather than 'soft' because they made fun of the word 'soft.'"
So what's standing between current football helmets and far safer helmets -- safer for the wearer, safer for the person being hit -- is looks and the word "soft."
If everyone were required to wear an outer-padded helmet, initially all football players would complain about a geeky appearance. Within a year, the padded helmet would be perceived as normal and the appearance forgotten -- while severe injuries declined. Put a soft helmet on Ray Lewis' head. Would this cause anyone to think he's soft?
So, NFL -- if you really care, as you claim, about reducing head trauma risk, require that outer padding be added to all helmets beginning in 2011. Colleges and high schools will follow suit, since adding padding is not expensive. Mainstream helmet manufacturers, who have shied away from outer padding on fears that players won't wear it, will jump in with all-new, safer designs if the NFL takes the lead with a mandate.
Football helmets, and football play, can be made substantially safer with a simple, affordable equipment improvement. The only reason not to take the step is that there would be grumbling about looks. Looks mean more than safety? Especially the safety of the 1 million high schoolers who are the majority of America's football players? The outer-padded helmet is the helmet that can save football.