Now that US football’s NFL player Damar Hamlin seems on the road to recovery and our national 15 minutes of outrage has moved on to its next fleeting spotlight, here’s the solution to the problem of concussions in football.
I don’t like to tease, so here it is:
1) Stop designing football helmets as idealized weapons, and 2) in the same way that kneeing has the worst stigma against it among all athletes, create that same stigma against using a helmet or head to attack.
The problem in the NFL is not what happened to Damar Hamlin. His injury, apparently a megamillions-unlikely medical rarity called ‘commotio cordis,’ happens about 30 times a year in the US, when a sudden impact hits near the heart and interferes with its rhythm. It seems that it is most likely for youth baseball players, pitchers getting hit by pitches. Lightning hits people in the US approximately ten times as often, 350 by my quick search. The miracle isn’t that commotio cordis occurs; it is that every day 8 billion people have hearts that beat non-stop through the wonder of nature.
The problem in football continues to be concussions, and of course joint injuries, but joint injuries are not the issue, and won’t be stopped until better, lightweight Kevlar joint girdles are perfected. I estimate 15 years for that. (The shoulder, however, might be unprotectable since its range of motion starts at ‘nearly miraculous.’) The issue is concussions.
I’ve been playing ice hockey, bad ice hockey, for 40 years. Even in non-checking hockey, there’s plenty of contact, collision, and varying levels of concussing (skull or other parts). So I know a thing or two about contact sports, first-hand (or is it first-head?). The only thing that any non-professional hockey player worries about is paralysis. Everything else — concussions, knee injuries, etc. — while they might be scary, are mere flesh wounds by comparison. The worst they might do is end your ‘career’ or make your locker-room banter even more inane than it already is. You can get out alive and walking. My only point here is that I’m not a complete hypocrite when I talk about this topic. Concussions happen, probably a lot, in ‘non-checking’ hockey. (I’m pretty sure I’ve had won, or is it too? Anyway, they were miner.) But they’re not with rock-wall athletes at high speed as in the NFL, so they’re generally — I said generally — less severe and you can ‘get out’ any time.
Professional athletes probably worry about concussions, but only after having a serious one. So now, let’s talk about football helmets.
They are perfect weapons. They weigh about five pounds and might be stronger than steel. In fact I guarantee that they’re more impact resistant than a roughly similar thickness of steel. Steel is ‘malleable,’ a wonderful attribute that makes it deform or dent, and accounts for its being one of civilization’s greatest tools. There’s no way to make an apples-to-apples comparison but if you used the same thickness of steel as car fenders, and two NFL players hit squarely head-to-head, both steel helmets would deform TREMENDOUSLY, and (as long as there was also foam inside the helmets) a huge amount of the energy would be absorbed by the steel before it could be transmitted to the tissue that suspends the brain in the skull.
Instead of steel, football helmets are made of the most impact resistant plastic, polycarbonate. When you wear such a helmet you feel that you can use your head as a missile and risk no damage or pain… because you are in control and you can tense every muscle in your body at the moment of impact. Contrast that with the ice hockey helmet. It is thinner, softer plastic, apparently not even polycarbonate but high-density polyethylene. I’m surprised to learn that. And they have hinges to connect their pieces to make a full shell. They are not designed for the circumstance where the entire body weight is used as a horizontal projectile.
Imagine the old carnival game where you ring a bell with a mallet. Above is one that was for sale on Etsy. If you were to put the hockey helmet or the football helmet on the end of that hammer, the football helmet would ring the bell much easier. It transmits most of its force to the thing being targeted.
So the first step to reduce football concussions is, to put it pretty simply, to change to hockey-style helmets… so that players no longer treat their heads as impenetrable missiles. You’re already seeing the first inroads of this change, with many helmets having a flap on the front — a piece of the forehead area where the plastic is cut through, in a U shape, so it can bend in.
The second step is to create a stigma against using the head to hit or tackle. (I can’t see any way to prohibit a runner from ‘putting his head down.’) The stigma will take time and has to be started with penalties and propaganda. Once it becomes player culture, only the penalties will be needed from that point on.
- The penalties have to be real, not gestures, but allow for second chances. Future playing time and income must be charged. (And any monetary charge that is less than 2% is a mockery, not a penalty.)
- Any play must be reviewable after the game. Doing so during a game is not really the issue.
- Head-to-head contact must be penalized more severely.
- The players should be involved in the penalty assessment, other than actual game play.
- The matter of ‘intent’ is tricky. I find that in hockey this is often misunderstood or rather, judged stupidly. The issue isn’t whether you ‘intend’ some outcome; the issue is whether you controlled an action. If you go helmet-first at a target it doesn’t matter what outcome you intended.
This brings up the interesting question, why is there a stigma against kneeing, but not use of the head/helmet? Because the impenetrable-missile-like NFL helmet (with its concomitant product, frequent extreme concussions) is new… a recent technological development. And virtually all of mankind’s problems are from our struggle to manage technology.