"Coaches say padded helmets are dangerous because the padding increases torque stress. They say it causes pinched nerves. Baloney. If that was all there was to it, they could coat the padding with Teflon. The coaches wanted their noise back." Well, maybe not all the time. Oklahoma, for instance, practices in padded helmets but changes to hard-shell helmets for games.
Former Cornell team physician Dr. Alexius Rachun confirms that at Cornell there was "no increase in the number of pinched nerves" because of padded helmets. The Stanford Research report on NFL injuries found other "reasons" had been given by the manufacturers for not padding helmets: teams objected that manufacturers "couldn't paint the team logos on soft helmets" and were afraid of "increased equipment costs." Also—the most unconscionable rationale of all—teams "did not wish to protect members of the opposition unless their [own] were also protected." Any excuse, says Dr. Rachun, "is a terrible injustice to the player. These tough football coaches just feel the only way to play the game is to beat the hell out of the opponent."
Recently manufacturers have pushed to have face guards removed from the helmets, having been burned in the courts by the argument that the guard acts as a lever which drives the helmet down on the spinal cord. Dr. Richard Schneider, head of neurosurgery at the University of Michigan, who studied the case histories of 225 helmet injuries (66 deaths) in high school, college, pro, semi-pro and sandlot games, concluded that the guard did indeed act in such a manner, and recommended its removal. Dr. Schneider said it would be better "to lose a few teeth than to sustain a severe head or neck injury."
Slicing across all these arguments, however, is an inescapable overall conclusion: the helmet is being used as a device to injure football players. What difference does it make which portion of it is more lethal if such use is allowed?
"What appears to be going on here," says The Physician and Sportsmedicine, "is a game of semantics, in which coaches and rule makers are saying that the only danger to the head and neck is when the top of the helmet makes initial contact, and physicians and other concerned persons, including a minority of coaches, are replying that it makes little difference whether it is the face guard, side or top of the helmet that makes the initial and forcible contact."
Two years ago the National Federation of State High School Associations ruled that no helmet blow, from any position, could be the first contact in blocking and tackling. Doug Dickey thinks it a rule worth looking into for colleges, at least as it would apply to defensive players. He sees it as a possible means to stop players from burrowing into falling ballcarriers, requiring them to at least look where they are going. Some concerned coaches, like Paterno, think the rule might be unrealistic because the head "tends to fly around and get in the way anyway." Dr. William Clancy of the University of Wisconsin Sports Medicine Clinic argues that because of that rule he has treated an unusual number of "stingers"—caused by the transitory stretching of the nerve running from the neck down the arm during a shoulder tackle—which, in extreme examples, can result in partial paralysis.
But even when paralysis occurs, a stinger is not a permanent injury. All 24 cases Dr. Clancy treated were fully recovered within six months. The high schools' experiment may still be open to judgment, but results are encouraging: the high school federation reports that deaths and catastrophic head and neck injuries were at a 25-year low in 1977.
Despite this encouraging statistic, no move was made in recent NFL and NCAA Rules Committee meetings to follow the high schools' example.
Rules of sport are not graven in stone. They are changed frequently, and there is precedent for changing them expressly to make football a safer game. Colleges usually lead in these reforms, with the pros' fear of a commercial-image failure making them lag behind. In any case, says Paterno, "we have an obligation to try things, even if we don't agree that they're the final answers."
On that basis, it would seem logical to try these across the board, from the sandlots to the pros: