The possible solution to serious head injuries in soccer is counterintuitive

It is clear to any serious observer of professional (or college) football that the link between the sport and serious, long-term brain damage poses a potentially existential threat. Hollywood has made films about the connection, many former NFL players have had their brains autopsied and are surfacing with signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and parents increasingly seem to discourage their children from playing youth soccer:

In September (2019), the NFSHSA experienced its first decline in high school sports participation in 30 years. The number fell from about 7.98 million to about 7.94 million – a difference of 43,395 – with football being the biggest contributor to the drop.

The sport clearly has a problem.

Over the past 5 or 6 years, the NFL has taken several steps to show they are aware of the issue and care. They changed the rules to try to minimize helmet-to-helmet contact and severely penalized it when it occurs. They have implemented protocols that require a medical examination for any serious head contact. These collisions are no longer simply written off as a player “ringing their bell”.

They’ve been working to add a number of helmet designs that are said to reduce the likelihood of brain trauma when these hits occur. And this off-season, they’ve added a requirement that players in certain positions must wear “sentinel hats” — essentially padded covers on their helmets — to try and minimize the likelihood of head-shaking collisions resulting from random pre-season collisions.

All of this seems to be moving in the right direction for reducing concussions, but what if some of it isn’t?

Raising the red flag

In many ways, our standard response to trying to reduce or prevent injury is often to incrementally improve our defenses against it. In football, this is shown dramatically in the evolution from a thin leather cap and minimal body padding 100 years ago to the material-clad, space-age gladiators we’ve seen on the gridiron over the past half-century.

And I suspect most fans would see this as progress in the mission of keeping players safe. But what if not? Informed by discussions in the boxing world, I’ve thought about this topic since the head injury controversy picked up steam — maybe in the last decade or so — and am a proponent of the perspective that there’s a way to seriously reduce head injuries in football actually starts with shedding some of the armor.

Take away the indestructible plastic helmet and metal face mask and you’ll see many few players putting their heads in deliberate contact – for obvious reasons. Of course, this perspective is not just mine.

I said a long time ago if you want to change the game, take the mask off your helmet,” Mike Ditka said on NBC Sports. “It will change the game a lot. If you want to change the game and get it back to where people don’t hit their heads and use their heads as weapons, take the mask off the helmet.”

And there’s a growing body of research that seems to point in that direction.

I was intrigued when I woke up this morning to see at least one NFL head coach feeling the same way.

New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh isn’t calling for the elimination of helmets, but he does raise concerns similar to those I outlined above regarding the new guard caps:

He worries that as the Guardian Cap softens the impact, players will develop a habit of using their head more than they otherwise would.

I think because of the soft hitting, players can use their heads a little more‘ Saleh said. “I think the first time they take it off – anyone who’s played football knows that the first time you take your helmet off or hit your helmet or you have a collision, it’s a shock. I think if you wait until the first game for that shock. . . . I don’t know, time will tell. It’s just interesting with these Guardian Caps and what exactly we’re trying to achieve.”

Just as modern helmets make players feel like their heads are safe within these high-tech confines, Saleh suggests that the extra padding provided by the sentinel caps might lull players into the false sense that head contact isn’t that bad, and that could actually be in the end more Head injuries as a result when players play without caps again.

I think that’s a very astute insight and that he’s probably right.

So why not simply make protective caps mandatory so that the rebound effect never occurs? I think that’s a pretty likely outcome over the next few years. So what’s the problem?

Let’s assume that the Sentinel Caps reduce the effect of impact by 10% (the number above), but that they increase the comfort players feel when they’re a bit more reckless with their head by 15%. It’s still easily possible to imagine a scenario where the severity of hits decreases somewhat, but the frequency of those hits increases enough to negate or even reverse those gains.

It is not enough to test the impact resistance of helmets in the laboratory. As Saleh so critically points out, the most important thing is how these tools are used in the real world, by real players, not doctors, like the NFL’s Allen Sills, who took issue with Saleh’s troubling lack of trust:

“The brain doesn’t get used to headbutts,” Sills said. “The Guardian Cap helps mitigate those forces at a time of the season when we’re seeing the greatest concentration of them.”

I applaud Saleh for raising the issue, and I hope that rather than pursue a lonely path of increasing escalation in defensive gear, the league pays serious attention to a far less obvious potential solution to save its players, itself to save yourself, and save the game we all love very much.

opinion poll

What do you think the league should do about concussions?

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    change nothing

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    Require guard caps

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    Move into a helmetless future

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    Something else (say in the comments)

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