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Why a hot idea for making football safer is such a hard sell for the NFL

The scientists are understandably frustrated: the games continue despite their constant updating of the evidence showing that the current plastic safety helmet is ineffective at preventing catastrophic head injuries sustained in tackle football. James M. Smoliga, a professor at Tufts University’s department of rehabilitation sciences, exposed all the shortcomings in the NFL’s concussion prevention reporting earlier this month in an article that was published on Ars Technica. A section of Smoliga’s article discusses the usage of soft-shell “Guardian Caps” during preseason drills, which is currently required by the league. The NFL’s homemade statistics, which Smoliga examined, show that the lumpy accessories, which draw attention to the size of the helmet and give the players a look akin to the Great Gazoo, have decreased the preseason concussion rate by fifty-two percent.

Each year, the news is replete with articles about much-heralded innovations from helmet producers and pictures of futuristic-looking new helmets, such as Riddell’s “Axiom” model. A peculiar subtheme in the discussion of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and concussions is helmet innovation. The awkward-looking Guardian Caps have never been a serious consideration for NFL or college teams for regular season use. Scientists, on the other hand, don’t think that even complete NFL adoption would have a significant impact. Some people draw parallels between safer cigarettes and improved helmets. In an article about the NFL’s pursuit of helmet innovation in 2021, CTE researcher Lee Goldstein stated to the New York Times, “It’s smoother and it might not give you a hacking cough.” But lung cancer still strikes.

Throughout football’s history, medical researchers have used popular media to spread awareness of what medical historian Kathleen Bachynski has called a “public health crisis.” However, in recent years, the frequency and intensity of these outreach efforts has increased. Additionally, surveys of the general public indicate that their efforts have been successful, particularly in the wake of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s well-known 2002 diagnosis of CTE in the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster’s brain:Even though they continue to watch the Super Bowl, the majority of Americans now view football as dangerous. There’s no doubt that articles like the recent heartbreaking story in the New York Times about CTE in former athletes who passed away before age 30, many of them by suicide, are a factor in the declining youth football participation rates.

A serious examination of the risks associated with tackle football and the limitations of current helmet designs, however, overlooks a crucial point: the basic appeal of the familiar object as everyone who watches football in 2023 has always known it to look. To put it bluntly, the helmet and the logo it sports mean more to many football fans—possibly even to the majority of them—than the brain that lies beneath it.

Over the past 80 years, the area on the side of the plastic helmet has evolved into a blank canvas on which the distinctive emblems of numerous American communities—whether they be colleges, high schools, or cities home to NFL teams—have been erected. The helmet logo is essential to the idea that, in the words of philosopher Erin Tarver, “sports fandom… is a primary means of creating and reinforcing individual and community identities for Americans.” Football helmet designs draw players, fans, and money, from the University of Michigan’s “winged” helmets to the Dallas Cowboys’ star-studded lids, from Florida State’s flying spear to the New England Patriots’ “Flying Elvis.” They are the main symbols of highly valuable brands; they stand for both enormous public universities with tens of thousands of students, hundreds of thousands of alumni, and millions of fans, as well as multibillion-dollar private clubs that evince civic and regional pride.

Not always like this, though: From the Ivy League’s bareheaded beginnings in the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century’s leather-helmet era, ornamentation and symbols were mainly excluded from the helmet equation. The helmet’s appearance in the later era was more functional: Although the leather strips used to make it were occasionally dyed a different color, even that was unusual. A few schools experimented with practical methods of helmet differentiation, such as color-coding different position groups’ helmets (particularly eligible receivers) or designating team captains or players receiving awards for prior on-field performance with unique lids. But the majority wore plain helmets when they entered the field. It was pretty hard to see their helmets anyway from the stands of the enormous new stadiums that started to appear all over the college football landscape in the 1920s.

The plastic safety helmet, created in 1939 by sporting goods manufacturer John T. Riddell, started out with a similarly practical design. The early models’ center stripe, which was occasionally painted a different color than the rest of the shell, covered the seam where the helmet’s two pieces were joined together. But eventually professional and college teams found that the smooth area on the sides of the shell, slightly above the ear hole, offered a perfect location for decoration.

An especially significant advancement occurred in the 1960s when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle realized that television could be a very lucrative future, setting the foundation for the league’s current position as an almost unavoidable cultural giant. When Rodelle signed the first national TV deal in 1962, most teams did not have helmet logos, even though the Los Angeles Rams had been known for their unique curling ram’s horns since wide receiver and college art major Fred Gehrke had painted them on the sides of his teammates’ leather lids in 1947.

Rozelle recognized that the NFL could be marketed using the new close-up view that the television camera offered, so he pushed for helmet logo adoption right away by all 14 teams in the league.With the exception of the Cleveland Browns, they all did so rather quickly, and each week, a vibrant tapestry of NFL helmets was displayed on screens. Colleges and high schools quickly followed, and the helmet soon evolved into much more than just a piece of protective gear. Modern helmets, emblazoned with vivid colors and stylish logos, vividly depict an unfathomably broad spectrum of American communities, from your neighborhood to Northwestern University to New York. Furthermore, the football helmet has evolved into the most iconic representation of the game itself.

Football’s primary symbol is the helmet, not the ball, unlike basketball and baseball, which are typically represented graphically by an avatar of the ball itself, and hockey, which can be represented by the stick, puck, or both. Helmets are frequently hung from the sets of football pregame shows, usually in an arrangement that denotes the most important games of the day. For many years, the opening credits of Monday Night Football had a unique ending that featured computer-generated images of the helmets of the participating teams colliding. The image of a football helmet has appeared in the primary logos of many NFL teams, including the Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns, Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers, and Los Angeles Rams.

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