Owen Edwards | Essays

The Quickest Fix

Philadelphia Eagles in 1963. From left: Sonny Jurgensen, Pete Retzlaff, Timmy Brown, and Tommy McDonald. Photo via philly.com.

Like a gazillion or so fans, semi-fans, and just curious non-fans, I watched the recent Superbowl, even though my hometown Forty Niners had not made it to the Big Show. And I stayed with it even though it was a miserably lopsided game. But despite the fact that I’ve been a fan of football since I played in high school, this Superbowl carried — for me and others — a new and gnawing guilt. The recent revelations of brain damage caused by helmet-to-helmet collisions, and the multi-million dollar settlement between the National Football League and suffering retired players, have begun to make even a long-time fan think of college and professional games as Future Dementia Bowls. And I’m feeling a new hesitation about watching athletes beat the hell out of others and themselves. This was the reason that I stopped watching boxing years ago.

Much hand wringing is now part of the discussion of football consussions, quite a lot of it for show only, the manual equivalent of crocodile tears. But much of the anxiety is genuine, for who wants to see one’s erstwhile heroes forgetting their names, or worse, killing themselves, as at least a few retired NFL players have done when they felt dementia coming on?

As with many problems, design may be part of this worrisome situation. The protective gear worn by players today is better and more protective than the uniforms of my playing days, by many orders of magnitude. The (perhaps) unforeseen consequence of better armor is a far more violent game, with well-shielded bodies converted into guided missiles and helmet-first hits replacing the shoulder tackles of yore. New rules against spearing (the chilling term for helmet tackles) will go some part of the way to easing the concussion epidemic, and better helmets may help — though they may also make players feel safer doing dangerous things. But I have a quick and easy and — I think — instantly effective way to solve the problem: Not more protection, but less.

In short, take away the facemask. No player in the game today has ever played without a cage of metal and vinyl shielding his face, and very few fans or former players have ever seen or played games without this standard piece of equipment. I am one of those few, however, and at the risk of outing myself as an early Cro-magnon, I will note that when I played high school football we had nothing in front of our faces other than giant blockers and fullbacks the size of freight trains (or so it seemed to me, a skinny kid with dreams of impressing the cheerleaders). In the final two years of my otherwise forgettable football career, before switching to lacrosse in college, I and my teammates considered shockingly sissified the first appearances of single, transparent bands of Lucite on the helmets of a few players with expensive orthodontia work. Real men, we figured, did not worry about the chance of a broken nose or a few lost teeth. But of course we did worry, perhaps wrongly imagining that our faces were our fortunes. So nobody ever dove into a tackle head first. Instead, we were taught to tackle with our shoulder pads, and practiced the technique for hours on tackling dummies. Our helmets were far from the state of today’s art, but I don’t remember more than a few, very rare concussions. Better yet, I can still remember almost everything else about those days…a good sign, I think.

If high school, college and professional football teams could forge a kind of anti-missile treaty, facemasks could be gone by the start of spring training. Mouthpieces can do a pretty good job of protecting players’ teeth, and a return to shoulder tackling will keep noses unbroken. And, of course, there will be no more of those penalties for those nasty facemask takedowns.

So…anyone for some barefaced ball?

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Product Design

Comments [3]

We must be close in age. Helmets were lacking any facial protection in my youth. I remember thinking along these same lines as I watched my sons play Ice Hockey. Players routinely knocked each other in the helmet with the butt end of the stick. There was no fear of injury. Before helmets were mandated both at the amateur and professional level, to go near another player's head with your stick was grounds for severe retaliation. The unintended consequence, players getting high stick penalties. A foul rarely needing to be called when I was young.

Removing the facemask, while possibly causing a change in tackling technique discipline, still risks significant facial injury through the many opportunities for accidental contact in a game, a loose-ball pile up, for example, or any inside run for that matter. I once heard it suggested that to stop aggressive use of the head, you must stop making the helmet a weapon. Simply make the outer surface padded. A soft foam layer outside the protective shell should diminish the impact upon collision - whether intentional or otherwise. Mark Kelso's 'Pro Cap' got laughed at, but if everyone looked the same, it wouldn't matter.
Dan Mason

In 1968, I attended a huge 4A high school in North Carolina. At 155 pounds, I had no business trying out for our top state team. I was neither fast nor big. Linemen were easily close to 200 lbs and some even bigger. I tried out for halfback. That summer, one drill was to line up 10 yards from one another and run helmet to helmet into one another. Two or tree times at that and I still remember to this day the severe headache that I had. Plus I am not sure I could have told you what day it was. No one cared if your head hurt. Needless to say, I quit the next day, head still aching. I was embarrassed to "quit" — but in hindsight, it wasn't for me and I am glad I did.
John Foster

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