It’s Football Season Baby! The time of year when roughly half of America tunes in to see if their favorite city can capture the elusive Lombardi Trophy. With the NFL looking to build on its profit of roughly 10 billion dollars last year, nothing appears to be getting in its way…other than safety that is.
In 2013, The NFL made roughly 1 billion dollars in merchandising revenue and more than a fair share of that merchandise features the league’s iconic helmet design. The sleek helmet and the uniform’s Storm-Trooper-like appeal represent a symbol of masculinity in American culture that is unrivaled by any other professional sport. Take these two key components and slap a few aggressive looking logos on them and BAM! you’ve got people lining up at the cash register all around North America. The problem is, (and this isn’t news) as cool as it is, the helmet doesn’t really do much to keep the player’s heads safe.
The same can’t be said about the past 50 years of automotive safety, we’ve seen revolutions; collapsible steering columns, airbags, crumple zones, three point safety belt you name it and automakers have done it-heck they build their marketing around it. If you need a visual watch the video below of a ’59 Bel Air smashing into a 2009 Corolla.
What does it mean? It means the safety can be achieved if it is really desired. The NFL meanwhile, just seems to be spending a bunch of money on research that leads to very little and when it does, they just brand it as safety, even when it’s not.
This is not to say progress hasn’t been made. The creation of the plastic helmets, which replaced leather helmets in 1949 for example, stopped a lot of players from dying. The evolution of the teardrop design then reduced the amount of head on collisions. Perhaps the most innovative modification occurred in 1971 when air valves where added and helmets could then be pumped with air to soften blows. Chinstraps were created in ’76 to keep the helmets from popping off and new material but since the 1990’s little has changed. The most recent attempt at fixing the helmet, the Riddell Revolution, really just made the helmet more intimidating looking, despite the fact that the company boasted the helmet curbed concussions by 31%. This claim was later refuted and Riddell’s subsequently abandoned the claim, only further strengthening the argument that safety still isn’t the number one concern.
Existing helmet designs have had debilitating effect on progress. With other high-impact sports such as lacrosse, stock car racing, and motocross also establishing helmets as the centerpiece of their branding, the NFL, along with helmet makers (Riddell and Schutt) work hard not to blur these product lines. Not to mention the NFL nostalgia just doesn’t seem to jive with these designs.
Sometime in the very near future the NFL will be opening its giant wallet and giving back an Enron-sized wad of cash to many of it’s former players. Will the suit set a new precedent for safety? No, the NFL will just continue to do what it needs to do to protect its brand. We will continue to see research, safety committees and eventually the removal of kickoffs but until the NFL breaks down and allows safety engineers to rebuild its helmets from the ground up, we’ll continue to hear the sad stories of former players developing early onset dementia, CTE, and suicide. Design and functionality can live in harmony but only if the NFL allows it to.