The large payout to former NFL players claiming brain injuries from concussions, including a number of Miami Dolphins, resembles the lawsuits won by smokers claiming lung damage. The difference is that smokers knew, or should have known, decades ago that their habit was dangerous. Terms such as “cancer sticks” and even advertising slogans such as “not a cough in a carload” were around years ago. The damage of head injuries to football players is a more recent revelation, but still old enough that one questions the reasonableness of the argument that the NFL was negligent in not protecting players in a game where the whole idea is violent collisions.
And the term “punchy” is as old as boxing, and it does not take a medical scholar to note that repeated blows to the head in any sport carry risk. In football, however, unlike boxing, it wasn’t always that way. We did not hear of men who played in the days before helmets, or in the leather helmet era, suffering dementia so severe that it has been linked to several suicides. It is ironic that the phrase “he played too many games without a helmet” has produced amusement, when in fact football may have been safer without such protection.
The first plastic helmets were designed in the late 1930s, grew popular in the late 1940s, and by the mid-50s had become common, even down to the high school level. Notre Dame was a throwback with leather helmets during the Paul Hornung era. The first hard hat we recall was not even designed for football. After World War II, helmets worn by tank crews, made of a hard synthetic material, were sometimes sold as surplus, and made a cheap football helmet for the sandlot. The men who had worn them in battle had some protection for their heads. Of course they also had several inches of steel around them.
Initially, plastic helmets did not dramatically change football. But not long after, face masks came into play, and the combination of the hard shell and the protection of a mask made players look like knights of old, ready to challenge spear and mace. As players grew bigger and faster, they learned to use their heads as weapons, and in fact until recently were even coached to do that. Football became a different and dangerous game.
A glance at films from the leather helmet era tells the story. One does not see the violent, helmet-to-helmet, cracking collisions that mark almost every play in the modern game. Players arm-tackled and hit low, trying to trip or wrestle ball carriers to the ground rather than seeking to decapitate them. Without protective masks they did not often lead with their noses. Despite rules against it, and coaches' suggestions, it is difficult for a pass rusher to avoid helmet-to-head contact with quarterbacks. Especially when knocking the quarterback around is part of tactics. Tacklers instinctively use their heads as weapons, and ball carriers tend to lower theirs for more power and to provide less of a target for the defense. Helmet-to-helmet collisions are hard to avoid.
And with the speed and size of players, a knee or a kick, even a strong slap can jar the brain inside the head inside the helmet. It may take 20 years before the long-range effect of those blows are felt, but the NFL sure feels it now: $765 million worth of hurt.