Roger Marolt: Exploding the real problem with football
Football has to change. When the end physical result of encouraging kids to play a game becomes a toss-up with teaching them how to smoke cigarettes, something has to give besides the cerebral cortex.
Rule changes are not the answer. When it comes to the violence intended and built into the game, in the heat of the moment there are fine lines between playing vigorously and dangerously. Referees have difficulty determining what those lines are, fans don’t always understand where they are drawn and, most worrisome, players can easily lose sight of them with a game on the line.
Is it enough to penalize a player 15 yards for a personal foul when the result to another might be catastrophic? This doesn’t begin to address the damage the penalized player may be inflicting on his own body.
The answer has to be in helmet design. The function of the modern helmet has devolved from its intended purpose. It was supposed to protect players’ heads. It has become the second most dangerous weapon in sports second only to the gun; the 90-mph fastball and 110-mph slap-shot benign by comparison.
There is one basic rule in sport shooting that, when followed precisely, ensures participants’ safety — never point your gun at anyone. With a football helmet, that rule could never work. Aiming it at the opponent is the objective. The best we can come up with is: “Aim below the head.” (Begging the question: What effects do body blows have on vital organs in the torso?) The potential margin of error is huge when the missile and target are converging at full speed, the target ducking and weaving while the missile attempts to stop it dead. Players are going to get hit in the head, hard in many cases.
The modern football helmet is the tip of a missile that is a player’s body. Its purpose is to allow a player to fire that missile into the body of another player with as much force as he has the strength to administer. Players spend hours in the weight room to be able to do this more effectively. The helmet’s only promise is to leave the player’s head and face without visible bumps, bruises or cuts and to keep potential acute pain from the impact to a minimum.
This, in a head shell, is the problem with football.
We need to change the purpose of the helmet. We can no longer afford to use it as a weapon against another human being. It has to become more like a shin guard and less like a hard-plastic boxing glove. Its sole function has to be to protect players.
Some have suggested going back to the original leather helmets. I am not one of them. I think a player has a right to protect his nose and teeth with a face mask.
What we need are hard-shell, crumple-zone helmets that resemble current helmets. Think of a crashing race car. It basically explodes into a bunch of pieces. By design, the disintegration of the car dissipates energy upon a sudden halt of forward momentum.
Bicycle helmets use this technology. They are a one-and-done piece of sporting equipment. You crash. You live. You give thanks for your destroyed helmet as you toss it in the dumpster. Its only purpose was to save you from brain injury or death.
We need to adopt this technology for football helmets. The main objection to disposable helmets is likely the potential cost. The way the game is played now, if a player has to come off the field for a new helmet every time he makes helmet-to-helmet contact with another player, the expense in dollars could become exorbitant quickly. The difference might be that disintegrating helmets could be cheaper than current helmets that are designed expensively, and ironically, to survive huge blows capable of destroying their contents. It’s backward!
Football can evolve and players adapt to disintegrating helmets. Players would learn quickly not to lead with their heads. Coaches would have no choice but to teach body blocking and tackling techniques. Athletic department directors would certainly encourage ways to reduce the cost of broken helmets. As with wooden bats in baseball, players would learn to hit properly, to avoid breaking their equipment.
Medical science has proved that football is not as great as we thought it was. No game that causes a moral dilemma for fans watching or parents deciding whether to send their kids onto the field can be considered great. We need to use technology to revive it. We can’t figure this out in an old school.
Roger Marolt used to love everything about football. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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