American Football: Helmets, Cracked Eggs, and a Red Card
American football is a violent game and it is rare that one ends without injury. A dislocated shoulder, broken ribs, cracked collarbones, or a torn ACL -- this and more is what we watch on the weekends.
Aiming for the quarterback is axiomatic. If defenders can hurry, shake, or hurt the quarterback, he can lose his rhythm or be driven from the game, leaving the offense in the hands of a second or even third-string player. The worst of these hits is helmet-to-helmet contact, which is just what it sounds like. A defensive player, sometimes a lineman or a free safety, attacks at speed and slams his helmet into the opposing player's helmet. If he does his job, the offensive player, whether quarterback, receiver or lineman, can end up with a concussion.
For the National Football League (NFL) addressing on-the-field brutality is as much matter of business practice as conscience. The loss of a top quarterback or other star player translates into a loss of millions of dollars. Furthermore, players and their union are successfully filing suit against the league for concussion and memory-related injuries. And finally, horrific stories about brain-damaged players are flooding the news, and owners worry that the government will begin to investigate football violence as it did drugs in baseball.
Focusing primarily on "defenseless" players -- those who are off the ground or otherwise unable to move away from an oncoming hit -- the NFL has: (1) made helmet-to-helmet hits a 15-yard penalty; (2) levied personal fines against players whose actions appear especially egregious; (3) instituted new procedures to better check players for concussions; and (4) begun researching better helmets.
Outlawing helmet-to-helmet hits makes sense, but officials miss a lot of hits and the 15-yard penalty does not fit the crime. A defender can cripple a quarterback or receiver and send him to the hospital, and the on-field consequence is only 15 yards.
Fines on players, some of them seemingly substantial, also do not stop foul play. They are a disincentive to an individual player, but not necessarily to a team -- accounting for the New Orleans Saints' team decision to deliberately hurt opposing players. The money can be taken care of in new contracts, endorsements, or some other means of compensation.
The new rules to check players are certainly good. Head injuries, however, are not always easy to detect and even the best sideline or locker room diagnostics will miss cumulative injuries. The brain is still a mysterious organ, and the kind of injury that led former NFL linebacker Junior Seau to take his own life probably would not have been picked up early enough, even with the best diagnostics.
This leaves helmets. A modern football helmet is very hard plastic with interior shock-absorbing pads. Look at the condition of a player's helmet during a game and you will see lots of scratches but no dents. Football helmets don't dent and the pads don't really protect against the internal damage of a traumatic head-to-head shock. The brain is essentially torqued inside the player's skull, slapping against the bone. If you ever banged your head and "saw stars" you have some idea what happens. The brain, suspended in fluid and flexibly attached, isn't designed to rattle around in there. These injuries, furthermore, are cumulative: impaired vision, memory loss, foggy decision-making, slurred speech, and imagery so twisted that people sometimes want to kill themselves, and sometimes do.
"Improving" the survivability of a helmet by making it harder may actually increase the likelihood that a player will see the helmet as a weapon, and no improvement can stop the g-forces and shock that twist and damage the brain.
Which brings us to two solutions that might work better and make the game more a game of skill than a game of kill -- one by improving the crucial equipment, and one by taking a page from football's cousin, soccer, where players are almost entirely unprotected.
The Cracked Egg
A helmet could be designed to begin to fail when certain types of impact takes place. Your car bumper, for example, is good for an impact at 5 miles per hour but not one at 60 mph.
If helmets had an outer skin designed to crack when too much force is used, a player with a cracked helmet could be suspended from the game -- a direct and immediate disincentive for leading with the helmet. Teams would focus on skill and safe tackling because even the poorest official would see a cracked helmet and remove the offending player.
In addition to the cracked helmet, college and professional football needs a Red Card, which is what soccer referees use to punish players for egregious and unprofessional attacks on others. A Red Card on the soccer field has two consequences. First, the offending player is ejected and then barred from the next game. But more important from the team's point of view, the ejected player cannot be replaced on the field, meaning the team has to play one down. The team and the coaches have great incentive to teach players to use their skills rather than brute force to achieve their ends. And the player's loyalty to his team will help ensure that he curbs his more violent hits in order to stay in the game. The same would be true in football -- when a team has an incentive to play skillfully, thuggery will disappear.
A "cracked egg" helmet and the Red Card could help restore football as a game of skill, and would over time significantly reduce brain injuries to players. The NFL is trying to go in the right direction, but the League has to do more to restore the honor of the game.