Football like sex, is a game that every generation believes it “Invented”. Although the game is well over one hundred years old, and the modern helmet design barely thirty, many fans mistakenly believe helmet-to-helmet hits are a “part of the game” and fret that eliminating these hits will Sissify the game. Fact is, fairly recent technological advances in helmet design enabled defensive players to use their helmets illegally as weapons. And to be clear: it is the lack of risk to the defensive players that emboldens them to use their helmets in this manner.
Perhaps some history is in order. In the 1880s up through about the 1920s football as a team sport was contested in the college ranks but professional football was still not particularly popular. The first helmets, more fashion statement than protective were nothing more than formed leather shells over a layer of padding. Without getting too technical, the energy developed by a defensive player hitting another player was simply absorbed by both the hitter and the hitee. The helmets of the day offered little more then a convenient way to keep one’s ears warm and when a defensive player made a huge hit, more times than not, he knocked himself unconscious. Football was played by men and you needed a monster set of Kaunas to deliver a hit that would probably render you unconscious. There were no trainers and the average team carried “Smelling salts” to restore consciousness to the hapless defensive player after one of these self-induced, concussion rendering hits. If the game was played in cold weather, there might be ice available but the standard treatment for a head injury was to “rub some dirt on it”. To determine when a player was sufficiently recovered to re-enter the game, an associate on the sideline would often hold up a number of fingers and when the concussed player could guess how many fingers were being held up, he was deemed ready to return to the field.
The National Football League in its modern form really took off in the early 1930s. At the time, Professional football players were men and they did not wear helmets, choosing to play without benefit of a device to keep their ears warm. Medical science had little to say about the debilitating nature of head injuries but the advent of commercial ambulance services meant that an unconscious player would at least get a stretcher ride off the field, which was no doubt great advertising for the ambulance companies and got the ambulance crews into the games for free.
Around 1940, the NFL decided that protective head gear was a good thing and ordained that players must now wear helmets. The helmets were little more than a minor upgrade to the original leather helmet designs but suspension liners offered some increased protection. The 1940 championship Game remarkable in that the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins faced each other, was even further distinguished as the last game in which a player without a helmet participated. Students of the game fretted that helmets would sissify the game. On the medical side of things, smelling salts was now augmented by the conventional wisdom that a concussion was something a player should be able to “walk off” or “shake off”.
The 1950s saw advances in plastics and the introduction of the first hard shell helmets. While the ability to render a bone breaking hit on an offensive player now existed, the suspension liners in these helmets still made these types of hits a dicey proposition for the defensive players. Undeterred, defensive players used their pads to great advantage and developed a number of novel techniques to compromise the playing ability of the offensive players. Clothes lining, biting, head slaps, and horse collars were just a few of the tools in the arsenal available to defenders. The introduction of the face mask, which also appeared in the 1950s provided defenders with perhaps their best way yet to bring a ball carrier down. The NFL quickly acted to make grabbing the facemask of another player illegal. Students of the game fretted that the game was being Sissified. There was still no change on the whole concussion thing. Apparently, medical science figured that if you couldn’t actually see anything wrong, like a big bruise or a bone protruding through the skin, nothing was wrong and it was a rare head trauma that was actually visible.
In the 1960s a couple of major changes occurred. Sports Medicine actually came into existence and conditioning, nutrition, weight lifting and the discovery of anabolic steroids as a performance enhancing drug meant that athletes could actually make themselves bigger, faster, stronger and more agile. Most players believed that sterility was a small price to pay to enhance one’s athletic performance. the University of Maryland football team implemented one of the first “weight lifting” programs in the late 1960s. Any defensive player that chose to lead with his head often regained consciousness several minutes later, on the sidelines with some trainer waving a vial of smelling salts under his nose and asking him how many fingers he (the trainer)was holding up.
In the 1970s, Neurology got a real shot in the arm when the first Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines were introduced. For the first time, the effects of concussions were being studied and this did not bode well for boxers, football players, and others who routinely took shots to the head. In the NFL, a player knocked unconscious was required to sit out the rest of the half but most returned to finish the game. Technologically, the football helmet was refined into a weapon in the 1970s. The older suspension liners were replaced by a custom fitted liner that used a series of glycerol and foam filled bladders inside the helmet to absorb and dissipate the energy of a hellish hit… at least to the defender. This revolutionary breakthrough meant for the first time in 80 years, defenders could now use their helmets as a weapon without fear of injuring themselves while delivering crippling blows to the offensive players. It was discovered that the best place to deliver one of these devastating blows was against an offensive player’s helmet a.k.a. helmet to helmet. Again, it’s not much more than a physics experiment involving the effects of impact to a stationary object like the head of a wide receiver, when hit by a moving object like a defenders helmet. For those interested, this can be expressed as a series of simple equations with all kinds of coefficients for velocity, weight, resistance, distance, friction, which when carefully calculated equals a concussion to the offensive player with little risk to the defender. Still a highly risky technique as the slightest miscalculation could result in death or paralysis to the defender, helmet to helmet blows were quickly identified as illegal. Called "spearing", it was deemed a mere cheap shot. Unfortunately for the purists of the game, medicine had finally arrived at a point where “concerns” with these debilitating hits started to get noticed.
And this is where everything stood until Troy Ackman’s stint as the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys once again cast an ugly light on these cheap shots. Seldom mentioned except by Joe Buck and only when Troy isn’t within earshot is the large number of concussions Troy suffered. While records aren’t kept on these things, it is believed Troy’s ten acknowledged concussions are an NFL record. So if someone is to be blamed for the modern approach to head injuries in football, then Troy Ackman along with the offensive line coaches at the Dallas Cowboys should bear the brunt of the responsibility for this debacle. And a hearty thanks to Joe Buck for keeping this issue alive.
The last quantum leap in helmet technology several years ago reduced much, but not all the risk to the defender delivering one of these blows. In 2006, the NFL responded with more stringent rules in response to the increased number of these hits that resulted from the enhanced helmet designs. Realistically, rules were put in place years ago that made helmet to helmet contact illegal and this was never part of football prior to the technological improvement that eliminated much of the risk to defensive players that lead with their helmets. It is now, and always has been a cheap shot designed to incapacitate an offensive player. Gone are the days when defensive players delivered these shots at peril to themselves. The helmet to helmet blow has no place in football; it is nothing but a cheap shot delivered on a largely defenseless player by a defensive player that has little at risk. Every week at every NFL game some of the biggest stars are standing on the sidelines with injuries sustained as a result of these cheap shots while the defensive players that administered these shots continue to play safe in the knowledge that they will suffer no ill effects for the blows they administer.
To date, not one defensive player has even been ejected from a game and there have been zero suspensions. The NFL’s message as championed by Bill Cowher, Phil Simms and Boomer Esasion is clear: the NFL deals in gladiatorial blood sport and has no real desire to stop these cheap shots. sadly, as Chris Collingsworth, Rodney Harrison and Tony Dungy have astutely pointed out, this can be stopped immediately by simply ejecting the offending player and suspending these players from future games. Officials can review the ball placement, and fumble calls, but will not allow the booth to review a flagrant cheap shot? Come on man, football is a violent game and there are very real risks when the game is played within the rules. When a player steps outside the rules and delivers a life threatening or career ending injury via a cheap shot, he is not a good player but merely an untalented loser unable to play man-up against a superior athlete. And this is good for the game?