Head trauma, as it relates to football, seems to be all the rage today. I did a little "head first" research, with the wall, floor - the tree in my front yard - and I even tried to headbutt my friend Titus Fielding. That didn't work out well, since he's six inches taller than I am, though I can categorically say his chin is rock hard, and may have a cleft impression on my forehead...
My findings mirror those, like the NFL, who've spent millions of dollars researching this subject: If hit your head on a hard object or surface, it hurts.
Mankind on the whole has studied what happens when the head gets a whack or two for thousands of years. It probably started with cavemen, and has continued on without respite as civilizations have risen and fell. The general consensus seems to be, if you wear something that covers the head that's harder than the object you may strike - or be struck by - you have the problem solved?
Ah, the helmet. The oldest known evidence of wearing some kind of head gear to protect the human head dates back to 900 BC, when the Assyrian soldiers donned them for battle. The majority of all helmet advancement throughout history has been by the military in a variety of countries. It may have been the result of the advent of the shield on the battlefield? A soldier runs up to another soldier on the battle field to stab him with his sword and finds a shield in his way. Out of frustration, he reaches over it and bonks his adversary on the head. Generals began to scratch their scare covered heads, and came up with the helmet.
Here are a few examples of military helmets I found both curious and amusing:
I never understood the hair at the top of this helmut? Did they have marching bands in ancient Rome? It could be that Roman soldiers were short and instead of wear lifts in their shoes, they went the other way?
The Mohawk festooned head gear makes be think of modern day "Punk Rock" and "Head Banger" music fans. They obviously missed history class on the day when the teacher explained there was a helmet between the Mohawk and the skull?
This helmut from the Hellenistic period proves the Greeks were cone heads. The wings at the side also hints at early peyote use, or that Red Bull was their drink of choice.
I am trying to imagine what a early Greek soldier, dressed in a toga and this conical head piece, looked like... Not all that shocking some of them fell for the Trojan Horse? In a time filled with Sirens, Zeus and chasing sheep when the bars close, this helmet fits right in.
The ancient Persians liked a sloped sided helmet. I'm guessing there were quite a few Persian soldiers missing their ears, as an enemy's sword glanced off the triple diamond slope and continued downward?
Made of leather or bronze, these helmets also contributed to Sassanians beating the Parthians in overtime. While goat kicking never really caught on, the two ancient rivals took it seriously.
The knight that wore this helmet had a honking big nose. Either that, or he tried to stab a foe with his face? I like the way the designer didn't overstate the need for vision, while including a cheese grater/colander for those after battle feasts.
After the medieval period, helmets began to become less of a concern for quite a while. They returned to more of a "metal hat" styling with the advent of gun powder and guns.
The need to see on the battle field became paramount. Padding inside helmets became a preferred innovation. The idea finally sank in that when you are whacked on the head - even a head covered by metal - the jar from the blow itself was enough to addle a soldier's mind.
Let's fast forward to helmets used in the 20th century for something other than military use. While helmets have been used in a variety of industries, I'm going to take a look at the evolution of football head gear.
One of the first known uses of head gear of any kind in a football game came in 1893. Joseph M. Reeves, a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, was told by by a doctor he could die if he were kicked in the head again. He commissioned a local shoe maker/blacksmith to fashion a crude leather helmet. Basically a leather cap made out of straps.
In 1917, a strap-cradle for inside a helmet was created by University of Illinois coach Robert Zuppke. Designed to spread helmet to helmet impact, it also added ventilation. Rawlings and Spalding were early manufacturers. The face mask was added in the 1930s by a Terre Haute, Indiana sporting goods store owner by the name of Vern McMillian.
The football helmet began to swiftly change in 1939. The first plastic helmet was invented by John T. Riddell Jr; one of the selling points being it wouldn't rot away like its earlier leather brethren. The first plastic helmets had a flat-ish top before morphing into a teardrop shape.
|Otto Graham liked the "see-through" look|
In each generation of helmet design, problems were found, and the designers went back to the drawing board. Advanced energy absorbing technology didn't appear until the early 1970s. Until them, canvas straps and vinyl cushions were attached by metal snaps inside the helmet. Air and fluid cushions were other advancements added during the 1970s. Poly-carbonate came into use in the 1980s and 90s.
In the modern era, money drives research and advancement. The National Sporting Goods Association list football equipment purchases at #20 out of 23 categories. The Archery market is five times larger than than football equipment spending. Protective equipment like helmets, pads and so on is a combined figure with all other contact sports (Hockey, Lacrosse, ect..). The two categories combined, NOT excluding the other sports, amounts to $298 million, ranking 14th on the list. Snowboarding is a larger market than football as far as equipment.
Advancements in football technology are being driven and funded by the NFL and NCAA. If not for them, head injuries in football would be far higher than they are now. Yet, even with their financial investment into player safety, it just doesn't appear to keep up with the physical evolution of the game. Players are bigger, stronger and faster than they were in the early 1900s. When you have 6' 8", 350 lbs behemoths that runs faster than running backs did in the early days of football, the physics of the game don't change. Inertia is a cruel mistress, and when bodies collide, something has to give. Technology can, and should, make a difference. Rule changes could help, but the old adage that "anything made by man - can be overcome by man" still applies. I have to wonder what it was like before 1888. That was the year the football rules committee began to allow tackling below the waist for the first time.
Football isn't going away. Anyone who plays football knows it's a physical game. When you are handed a helmet and assorted pads, it's to protect you, not to provide a fashion statement. Coaches put you through exhaustive physical training, while teaching technique to play the game. There have been 1006 deaths in football since 1931, so no coach takes what they teach lightly. Bones break, muscles and tendons tear in football, like virtually every other sport. It's the tendered cost we who play sports all agree to possibly pay.
I'm at a loss to understand why professional football players seem shocked that head injuries happen. More to the point, I'm amazed they contend the NFL didn't tell them about what could possibly happen. Maybe their head injuries made them forget? I tend to think this is more about the National Football League Players Association making a risky play to increase retired player benefits? The lawsuits being filed against the NFL are paper thin at their base. The damage to be done will be by scaring away future football players from the sport itself.
I don't blame Kurt Warner for his recent comments regarding his own children playing football. Parents worry. It comes with the parental job description. Yet, I'm rational enough to know that pretty much everything in this world can kill you, one way or another. The idea of limiting a child's exposure to peril is valid, but at what cost to the child when they are adults?
Football helmets are going to change. They will be adapted to the changing game. Rules will continue to change, taking away parts of the game fans and players love "for the good of the game". When all is said and done, it may be football morphs back to it's primordial ooze to mirror Rugby? Whatever happens, the game of football will be there in one form or another. We'll all adapt and cheer our teams each Fall Saturday or Sunday. Why? Because it's what we do, what we love, and how we live...