With so much attention being placed on sports concussions in the media, and we’re certainly doing our bit to add to that, we’ve seen much of the emphasis being placed on changing the rules, or designing a technologically advanced helmet.
But are efforts to make the game safer are actually making the game more dangerous?
How you play the game
Football is a rough game, and as long as there are footballers to play it, it will always be.
NFL, CFL, Rugby, Rugby League, Australian Rules. Codes that need a combination of brutality and strategy not only merely to win but also, as any footballer from any code will tell you, to make it painfully clear to your opponent they’ve lost.
To be fair it’s fraught to compare the codes.
Although it has its origins in Rugby, CFL has far more in common with its southern NFL neighbour; the defensive and offensive teams, passing the ball, the use of helmets and padding are now as alien to the Rugby fan as they’re familiar to an NFL fan.
The first recognizable North American football game was played in the 1874 between McGill and Harvard Universities and the codes have been fellow travellers ever since (for the record Harvard won 3-0).
The helmets appeared in the early 1900’s — at least as soft leather skull caps which wouldn’t harden into the “leatherhead” look for another 20 years. Little changed until 1939 when the first plastic helmet was introduced, and with it the false and damaging belief that all it took to make the game safer was a better helmet.
No helmet no problem?
But football, whatever the code, is tough to play. Accept and embrace this reality about the sport and then we can finally begin to make it safer.
“Fans love how exciting it is. We don’t like when someone gets hurt, but we really like when it’s really close to that point. And it’s a delicate balance of figuring out how to make the game safe, and still exciting. And so that’s one of the issues.”
That’s according to Ainissa Ramirez, the author of “Newton’s Football,” a book that takes a scientific approach to making Football safer.
“In fact Vince Lombardi has a great quote. He says it’s a ‘collision sport.’ I mean, people get excited when two men tackle each other, the whole stadium roars. That’s what they’re craving. It’s that blood hunger we kind of have, that we don’t want to admit.”
Here’s an idea: lose the helmet altogether. And throw the padding out with it.
Counter-intuitive as it sounds, the game is made safer because the player won’t get that false sense of invulnerability that a helmet and padding can bring.
Instead, of making it a collision sport, make it a tackle sport – go for the hips, place your head against the side of your opponent, lead with your shoulder (this protects your head), wrap around with your arms and watch your opponent hit the ground.
Compare this with avoiding “initiating forcible contact with the crown of the helmet outside the tackle box,” don’t use “any part of a player’s helmet or face mask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily,” and there’ll be none of that “grabbing a helmet opening of an opponent and forcibly twisting, turning, or pulling his head”.
These are the NFL’s latest rules to make the game safer, yet do nothing to address the NFL’s concussion rate; 0.68 concussions a game were reported (the ones that actually were reported) in 2012 compared with 0.16 concussions a game in International Board Rugby matches.
Changing the game
But while Ramirez is quick to dispel the myth that a concussion can be prevented with just the right helmet, she isn’t so on board with losing the helmets altogether …
“We have to think about why the helmet was put into play all together. The football helmet was put into play to prevent skull fractures. So if we remove the helmet, while we won’t have as many concussions we might inherrit another problem which is skull fractures, and people actually die from that. So I would actually back up and say we need to change the way we tackle. The tackles need to be exciting, they need to be the wonderful hard hits, because that’s the reason why people love the game. But we have to take the head out of the equation.”
She says in the research for her book, they came across L.A. football coach Bobby Hosea, who has developed a different way of tackling – one that doesn’t use the head.
“The tackles are just as impactful, and just as exciting as a regular tackle would be. So I think we have to think about that. If we remove the helmet, of course concussions will go down, but I think we’ll have more broken noses, more broken jaws, and skull fractures, and I think that’s not the trade-off that we want.”
But what’s it going to take to get the decision makers to move? The media attention now is stronger than it’s ever been.
Ramirez says the answer is grim.
“The worst thing that could happen for [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell, is if someone dies on the field. That’s going to be the wakeup call, if the media doesn’t gloss over it somehow. This is completely grusome, but it has to be like that. You know, we’re in a high militarized state right now – you know, it’s got to be on that kind of level for there to be any kind of shift.”
Football is a rough game and as long as there are footballers to play it, it always will be until concerns from players, coaches, lawyers, and parents grow to the point where the game runs a real risk of not being played by anyone at all.