Could Getting Rid Of Helmets Actually Make Football Safer?

CREDIT: Charlie Riedel, AP

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins, right, bumps helmets with wide receiver Chris Hogan (15) after scoring a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

These days — thanks to mounting scientific research and the Hollywood movie Concussion — the public is much more aware of the fact that playing football can damage your brain. So now the question is: What, if anything, can be done to make the most popular sport in America safer?

Recent research suggests the answer to that question might be counter-intuitive: getting players to take off their helmets.

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire found that regular helmetless-tackling drills reduced the number of overall head impacts suffered by the participating players by 28 percent. This reduction was the result of removing helmets only for five minutes of drills after a few select practices — in this case, twice a week during the three-week preseason and once a week during the regular season.

The study was led by Dr. Eric Swartz, the chair of the Department of Kinesiology at UNH, who’s a football fan himself with experience researching catastrophic head and neck injuries. When Swartz decided to focus his efforts on injury prevention in football, he recalled growing up playing rugby. He wouldn’t lead tackles with his head because he wasn’t wearing a helmet.

“In football there are so many head impacts because their heads are protected,” Swartz told ThinkProgress. “The helmets, while they do serve a function, also introduce a false sense of security.”

So Swartz partnered with UNH football coach Sean McDonnell to design a study aimed to take advantage of the vulnerability that players feel without a helmet.

Fifty players on the UNH Wildcats Division I NCAA football team, all with at least two years of NCAA eligibility, were involved in Swartz’s study. They were randomly divided into a group that participated in what’s called the “HuTTM intervention program” — essentially, a series of drills designed to train the athletes to safely tackle without a helmet on — and a control group that didn’t change their regular practice routine. All players were fixed with an xPatch head-impact sensor to track the head impacts each athlete encountered in practice and games throughout the season.

By midseason — about two months after the study began — Swartz could already notice a difference in the number of head impacts the players involved in HuTTM training were experiencing. Essentially, learning tackling technique without a helmet on meant that these players were less likely to use their helmet-clad head for tackling during games.

While this is the first known study about helmetless football, it’s far from the first suggestion that football helmets — which started off as soft, leather coverings and evolved into today’s poly-carbonate weapons — are actually making the sport more dangerous.

“If you want to prevent concussions, take the helmet off. Play old-school football with the leather helmets, no facemask,” Former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said back in 2012.

Swartz doesn’t think that removing helmets altogether is the answer right now — with the way the game is currently played, that would cause more injuries than it would prevent. But he also is wary of the focus on improving the design of helmets to improve safety, because those innovations often offer false hope. Swartz believes it’s behavior modification, not helmet technology, that will ultimately reduce the number of subconcussive hits players experience in games.

“The last thing I want is for players and parents to think is to get a better helmet that will prevent concussions,” Swartz said.

Swartz was excited by the findings in the first year of the study, and is planning on further testing of all different age groups and experience levels. A similar study is currently underway for high schoolers, and another is being planned for youth football. He sees this program as treatment, and therefore is treating the research like a drug trial. He wants to know the dosage of HuTTM needed for improvements in all levels of the game, and wants to develop a program plan that can be easily implemented by teams everywhere.

However, while he’s optimistic about the future of this program, Swartz offers a very important caveat. “We feel like this technique can make the sport safer. But it’s not a safe sport,” he said. “There is risk in playing football.”

For example, if further studies back up findings that this program results in a 30 percent reduction of head impacts, a typical high-school football player — who on average experiences 1,000 hits to the head — would only see that number reduced by 300.

“They’re still sustaining 700 hits. Are we okay with that?” he asked. “What is our definition of safe?”