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Football Helmet Safety: Heads Will Roll

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The quarterback is looking for a receiver and suddenly realizes he doesn’t have time to make a pass. He tucks the ball and begins to run. He gains several yards and as he disappears into a pile of players I hear the report of a big hit, pads popping — that distinctive sound that coaches listen for and fans applaud.

Then out of the pile-up flies a helmet.

It bounces once and lands right at my feet. When the players untangle, the quarterback emerges and moves toward me to pick up his helmet. He looks up at me and says, “You saw that hold against my team on the previous play but you didn’t see that hit on me?” Fortunately he was not hurt, but this incident points out two problems with our game today.

First, helmets come off too easily. In 2007 the National Federation of High School Sports enacted a rule requiring that chin straps be attached with four snaps. In 2008, the rule was clarified to require four separate attachment points. From where I stand, as a referee on Friday nights, these rules changes have had little effect on reducing the number of times helmets come off during impact. I saw it every week this past season.

As a spectator, every game I have watched on television this season has featured a helmet coming off. YouTube has over 100 video clips of this happening.

In this year’s Alabama-Mississippi State game, Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram’s helmet came off and his face was bloodied by an opponent’s facemask immediately afterward:

Forty years ago, high school players complained that it was almost impossible to get the helmet on to begin with, and just as hard to get it off. In today’s media crazed atmosphere and the increased presence of cameras at games, do the players want their helmets to come off easily?

One of the nation’s leading researchers in this field, Dr. Stefan Duma says, “My opinion is they come off because some players want them too, smile for camera etc. so they wear it loose.” If Dr. Duma is correct, then no amount of research by the manufacturers and no amount of rules changes will improve the situation.

The top three helmet manufacturers in the United States are Riddell, Schutt, and Adams (formerly Bike). Since the early 70s and after a few high profile cases of head injury and concussions, much of the research has been focused on designing head gear that will reduce the chance of and/or prevent concussions. Many technological advances have been made. In 2002, Riddell introduced their “Revolution” helmet and in 2007, Schutt added the line of “Ion 4-D” products which they tout as “the most advanced helmet in the market”. Adams’ premier product is the “A-4”.

Perhaps chin strap design is or should be the next area of significant research. A source in the NOCSAE (National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment) reports that one area of research involves the loosening of the chin strap on impact caused by the compression of the interior padding. Such a change inside the helmet would result in easier removal. Combine this phenomena with Dr. Stefan’s theory and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. A player with no helmet is the most vulnerable for head injury.

The February 2007 issue of Popular Mechanics reports that extreme football collisions can measure up to 150 g’s compared to a roller coaster’s five. Player safety depends upon the equipment to distribute the incoming energy of impact to lessen the severity. Typically discussions involving player safety and indeed, much of the research and development by makers of the equipment, focus on helmets and shoulder pads. The article referenced in Popular Mechanics is similar although it does mention the nagging frequency of knee injuries.

The second problem is that high school rules do not adequately address the issue of helmets coming off. Current rules deal only with the helmet coming off of the ball carrier while he is in possession of the ball. At that point, the ball is immediately dead and the covering official should sound his whistle. Other rules prohibit leading with the head (spearing) or use of the helmet as a weapon. There are currently no rules related to helmets coming off due to contact other than helmet to helmet. When a defender leads with his shoulder and the runner’s helmet hits the ground, there is no penalty marked on the ground either.

The NFHS has begun to address the problem of helmets coming off in both their rules committee and an ad hoc committee. Coaches need to get more involved in the issue as well. I often hear a coach shout from the sideline that we missed a call on helmet contact. Those shouts are even louder when the helmet comes off.

Prior to the game, a coach must verify to the officials that his team is properly equipped. Maybe being properly equipped should include having head gear fitted correctly so that it doesn’t come off so easily for the cameras. Now that the athletic governing agencies, equipment manufacturers, and fans are taking more interest, improvement should be seen soon, or heads will roll.

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  • I read something a month or so ago about possibly removing helmets (at least at the college or pro level). Somebody did a comparison of football with rugby, and found that there were significantly fewer head injuries in rugby. The idea, then, is to eliminate the helmet because players use them as weapons, thus negating their protective value. I’m sure they’d stop leading with the head and start tackling for real if threatened with paralysis (or worse).

  • Was that a published article? I’d love to read it.
    Do you have the reference?

  • Bernie Kleinstein

    It’s obvious that the number of head injuries suffered by football players due to concussions has long been overlooked. An overall improvement in the head gear would be beneficial to the players as a whole. There’s no amount of personal protective equipment that can guard players from the mean spirited cheap shots that some over zealous players deliver during the heat of competition. Why is it that a defensive player can get penalized, ejected, fined, whatever for a head to head, but an offensive running back or pass receiver or quarterback can deliver the same blow without fear of penalty?

  • Russ Evenhuis

    As a former rugby player, I feel that the reason there are less head injuries in rugby compared to football is that without the helmet, rugby players aren’t sticking their head in places they should be. Proper tackling technique, as a whole, isn’t shown in football while in rugby, without all the padding and a helmet, anything but proper technique will get you hurt very quickly. Also, a rugby player with a concussion is out for three weeks, no ifs, ands or buts about it.

  • Russ Evenhuis

    Oops, that should read “sticking their heads in places they SHOULDN’T be”. Sorry!

  • Bernie Kleinstein

    I’m convinced that Tebow would have performed better if he had enjoyed a three week rest after his concussion.
    At this point, there is so much money involved in American football (especially with equipment) that it would be too radical a change to start playing without certain equipment.

  • CMA

    How well are coaches being trained to properly fit helmets? I imagine they are fitting gear like their coach did and his coach did before that. Somewhere in that lineage, coaches were handing out floppy pieces of leather.
    My personal philosophy, given that I’ve not seen any serious injury from a helmet flying off, is the Indy Car theory. When an Indy Car hits the wall, it virtually disentegrates, except for the roll cage around the driver. The better guess is the chin strap. We have ultra-modern helmet technology but the basic chin strap today is little changed from the 50’s.

  • Joe Saundercook

    I agree with a lot of the points here and in the article, and I’ll add one helmet-related peeve: Too often after a helmet comes off I see the player slide it back on his head without having to unsnap the chin strap — which tells me it didn’t fit or wasn’t tight enough in the first place.
    Yet another poor example for my Pop Warner player…

  • Joe Saunderccok

    Sorry, to be clear: Without unsnapping, re-tightening or otherwise readjusting a chin strap that may have loosened per design intent…

  • Rich G.

    The recent issue of too many helmets coming off has concerned me as well. I am a youth football coach and try to keep up on the latest technologies of football safety. I recently looked into the helmets that are on the market. When I played the most advanced helmet was the Schutt Air Advantage. This helmet does not compare to the helmets that have recently hit the market (specifically the Schutt Ion 4D, Schutt DNA and the Riddell Revolution). After looking at videos of helmets coming off it appears that the majority of the time it is the Riddells that are coming off at an alarming rate. After looking at all three designs I believe that there is a major design flaw to the Riddell Revolution. If you notice on the Riddells, the helmet extends lower down the jaw than the other helmets. I would believe that this was designed to give the player more protection from a side impact. However, the facemask is designed to attach to this extended portion. Now, when the player has an impact from the front on the facemask the force is absorded at this point causing the back of the helmet to pivot up and ultimately off the head. If you notice on the Schutt DNA and Ion 4D the attachment for the facemask to helmet is higher on the helmet near the cheekbone. So Parents, if you let your player(s) pick a helmet they probably would pick on looks alone and would more than likely go with the Riddell (they look aggressive). However, I believe the safer helmets are the Schutts…Just my .02 cents…..