Rushville Republican

December 11, 2012

Barada: Bringing back leather helmets

Paul W. Barada
Rushville Republican

RUSHVILLE — If you follow sports, particularly football, you’re probably aware of all the consternation about the increasing number of concussions because of helmet to helmet contact, particularly among the pros. The problem, simply stated, is that helmet manufacturers have developed football headgear that’s so sophisticated it’s almost impervious to injury by the wearer. Of course, that’s not always true for the opposing player who gets hit helmet-to-helmet, especially when he doesn’t see the hit coming.

The issue, especially among the pros, is that the helmet has almost become a weapon the defensive player can use to knock an opposing player out of the game with at least a headache, if not a concussion. As a result, officials of the National Football League have made it illegal to lead with the helmet when making or attempting to make a tackle on an opposing player. That’s a good move in the right direction, but it doesn’t take very many hits to the head with that much force to cause a life-altering concussion; and, frankly, it’s a vicious hit for a player to make! If it were up to me, a helmet-to-helmet hit like I’m describing should be at least an automatic ejection from the game and a $20,000 or $30,000 fine. One would hope making the penalty even more severe would reduce the use of the helmet as a weapon.

The other part of the problem, as mentioned previously, is that helmet designers have made the helmet so protective that the player who uses it to hit an opposing player in the head seldom gets injured himself because he’s the one initiating the blow.

I think, however, I have a possible solution that might eliminate the problem altogether. Let’s go back to wearing leather helmets at every level, except Peewee Football! I hate to admit this, but when we were in middle school back in the Dark Ages, we played with cast-off leather helmets that I’ll bet the school had purchased way back in the 1930s. High school players had molded plastic helmets by that time and at least a single-bar face mask. The obsolete helmets we were given really were leather, had a chin strip that went under the chin, and no face mask at all. The only kid on our team who had a face mask, I believe, was Ted Lacy, and the only reason he had a face mask was that he wore glasses. Those helmets were so old you had to pull them apart to put them on. But there’s a more fundamental point to be made here, nobody in those days would have ever thought of making a tackle leading with his head! Nobody was that stupid. As a matter of fact, we were taught to use our shoulders and arms when making a tackle or a block. So, theoretically at least, the head really had little to do with playing football, except for thinking, but certainly not as a heavily protected weapon.

I’ll bet if we went back to lightly padded leather suspension helmets with a single-bar face mask instead of a cage we’d see concussions decline dramatically. Nobody would be foolish enough to lead with his head wearing a leather helmet held in place by only a flimsy chin-strap. To do so would put the defensive player in as much risk of a concussion as the offensive player being tackled.

There was a time, however, when most football players didn’t even wear helmets. Of course, their other equipment wasn’t very good, either: little shoulder pads, tiny hip pads, a couple of thigh pads, and, if they were lucky, two very thin knee pads. Most players, however, had a nose protector that consisted of a strap around the head and a nose protector held in place by the player using his teeth like a mouthpiece. I’ve got a team picture of my grandfather playing football wearing one of those things around his neck, probably taken around the turn of the last century. I think it’s safe to say that football was a far more dangerous sport, in obviously very different ways, in those bygone days. For one, the rules weren’t nearly as strict about flying wedges, throwing punches, and vicious cross-body blocks. There were plenty of broken noses in those days, but very few concussions.

Since those long-ago days, one of the real ironies is that, as players have been more and more protected by better and better equipment, the helmet has gone past just being a safety feature to protect the player’s head and neck. Some players have realized that their head is so well protected that they intentionally try to injure another player.

If eliminating concussions from the game is the goal, and if being fined and ejected from the game doesn’t work, make the penalties even stronger. A concussion is a very serious matter that can have a life-altering impact on the player who receives it. What it amounts to is banging the brain against the inside of the skull! If necessary, include a clause in every professional player’s contract that would provide for them to have their contracts canceled, and banned from playing for any other team for at least a full season. That would probably get the attention of the players who are inclined to use their helmets as a weapon. Personally, I would rather see then try going back to a leather helmet first.

That’s -30- for this week.