Pearl River School has begun in New Orleans now, and I’m betting it’s a sweatbox given our record heatwave. This is the South, so that also means football practices are full swing. Standing on my front porch, I look into the backyard of the neighborhood’s Fredrick Douglass High School, which is also somehow a KIPP charter school and has a tie-up with Bard College. Whatever, I’m not sure if they ever win much, but believe me, they have a team. This year, it’s the new helmets that have caught my eye.
The helmets are almost puffy with square panels. The young men look like they are wearing a giant white turtle on their heads. The helmets in fact look very much like the ones we see in the pictures from the NFL New Orleans Saints players who are suiting up for the pre-season. Watching the Douglass team, the new bulk and cushioning of the helmets doesn’t seem to be impending any of the players. This is obviously a safety measure in an infamously dangerous sport to protect against the usual and common hazard involved with concussions and their aftermath.
The National Football League working with the Players Association revised the rules for this season. “Beginning in 2023, the rule was modified to prevent a player from using any part of his helmet or face mask to butt or make forcible contact to an opponent’s head or neck area.” There are also clear negotiated recommendations for what helmets are approved for wear. Both the union and the league have biomechanical experts involved in extensive testing. The results are interesting. A chart breaks down the recommendations into dark green, which is the best, lighter green, sort of ok, and then an orangish not recommended and a red forbidden. I’m not sure how the union could give a nod to anything any team bought for its players that wasn’t the darkest green based on the recommendations. These guys are being paid millions, so why wouldn’t you spend an extra fifty bucks or whatever for the best?
This is undoubtedly progressing, but don’t for a minute think that this helmet, or any future improvements that are in the pipeline, guarantee total protection from harm. The brain remains fragile, and the force of direct contact remains perilous, just a bit less so.
I played football throughout my youth and loved the sport. Most of it was sandlot touch football in open yards behind schools and next to churches in the neighborhood after school. I played one season of high school football as an end, going both ways. I got clipped and ended up with a lifetime knee injury that can swell on me. I refused to have an operation on it. Some of our organizers sometimes claim I have a bit of a limp. I have no regrets, but I’m glad my son was on the bowling team. He’s a huge fan, and that’s OK.
Sometimes, I am too, but are the risks now acceptable? We can’t be sure. For the billions involved, at the college and professional level, I don’t get why they can’t do better right now. They have the money. They need to spend it on the players, not the alumni and big spenders. Below that level, even touch wouldn’t necessarily protect the players on the line, but why not ban anything other than that until we can protect the players? I just don’t get.