Why Do Football Players Wear Helmets?

Why Do Football Players Wear Helmets?

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Imagine as a young child seeing American football for the first time.Besides all the bodies colliding violently all the time, kids would notice the big shiny round things on players’ heads. Any curious mind would be left to wonder, why are helmets on the heads of football players?

Football players wear helmets to avoid injury while playing. The sport is centered upon violent collisions between athletes vying to gain territory from the opposition. Over time, a great need was realized for football to protect players’ heads and soft facial tissues.

Helmets were not always a part of American football. In fact, it took a while before the first player had the courage to wear something over his sensitive ears (the original reason why George Barclay of Lafayette College tried out earpieces and straps in 1869, the first football player to wear a protective headpiece).

Helmets very slowly gained acceptance through the rest of the 19th century, and by the 1920s they were commonplace. Hard plastic versions surfaced in the 1930s; all National Football League players were required to wear either leather or plastic helmets into the 1940s; and in 1949, the NFL officially adopted the plastic helmet for all game play, ending the era of the leather lid.

Why did Football Players Start Wearing Helmets?

Ever play rough as a kid and conk your skull against the noggin of another child? Remember the feeling? Perhaps the sound?

The human skull is very hard. It’s designed that way, evolved over millions of years where human genes very slowly changed how our skulls look and operate.

The skull protects the brain from direct hard contact, which could prove debilitating or fatal.

While concussions and brain injuries were indeed a concern in early football, it was protecting the ears and nose that resulted in the first football helmets.

Imagine your soft ear smashed by something very hard (another skull, or an elbow or knee), squishing it against your own hard skull. Mangled ears were just part of the game in early football. As were nose injuries, for the same reason.

The bottom line is, due to the sport’s face-to-face combat style, the plain ol’ skull was inadequate protection to keep players in games. The ears were protected, then the forehead and nose, and eventually the entire head was encased in padded leather.

Football Helmet as a Weapon

The helmets of football players have changed often, in response to game trends, rule changes, or technological advancements.

Until recent decades, many defensive players used the helmet as a weapon against those they collided with. Tacklers learned to generate as much running speed as possible, then “lead with the head” to strike at ball carriers with the helmet atop a stiff neck.

Such conduct eventually resulted in the spearing rule, where players cannot just launch their body head-first and arms down, into runners. They have to use the arms and at least make an attempt at tackling the correct way.

Still, serious injuries abounded, especially for wide receivers who often can’t see sprinting defenders coming right at them because they must keep their eye on the ball in order to make a catch.

Running backs tromping through the line also faced injury when defenders like safeties or linebackers would run full-steam straight at them. Even today, there are spectacular collisions between football players in nearly every game.

However, the practice of using the helmet to stop a player in his tracks, or even to injure him and maybe force his removal from the game, has been seriously curtailed with a series of new rules over the years.

Among them are rules like helmet-to-the-head (forbidden), and several provisions to protect quarterbacks in the pocket.

Football vs. Rugby Players: Helmets or Not

American football was invented as a derivative of the old British game of rugby (invented in 1832); with elements of soccer. All these sports are played on rectangular fields with goals on either end, and a pair of teams fighting to advance a ball across territory.

Yet after a century and a half of all 3 sports existing simultaneously, only American football players wear helmets. Why is that?

The primary reason is the difference in the way in which bodily contact occurs, driven by different styles and rules of play. Here are the primary differences:

  • Time of Plays. American football is played in short bursts of power, and because plays end with rest periods in between, players can maximize their energy with each tackle. Contact is allowed all over the field; whereas in rugby contact is only allowed on the ball carrier, or over a loose ball. And in rugby, play is continuous without all the stops between plays, usually several minutes at a time.
  • Rules. Contact in rugby is very heavily regulated and controlled. In football, certain types of contact like tackling might have rules to protect players, but with all players colliding every play, there is just a lot more contact overall in football. A gang of tacklers converging on a ball-carrier while running full-speed is very rare in rugby.
  • Injuries. In rugby, over time players learned how to position their bodies when expecting contact to minimize the impact in collisions. Helmets and pads were introduced to football because of very serious injuries including death. Football had to introduce safety measures (like changed rules and new equipment), or the sport could have been banned!
  • Endurance. As noted above, rugby does not have the constant stop in play that occurs in football games, after tackles when teams must realign on either side of the ball, providing valuable recovery time. That’s not the case in rugby, where play can be continuous up to 15 minutes without stoppage; typically play goes unstopped for 3 to 5 minutes. Rugby players “travel light” ~ they wear little extra clothing to keep weight low and stamina up.

American football is just much more of a sheer power game, exhibiting the brute force of not only individual players, but teams as a whole. Players are quite strong, but are still substituted out quite often, usually to allow players some rest for their battered bodies.

Rugby (and soccer) demand aerobic fitness as players remain in action constantly more often. Body strength helps rugby players at times, but in this game, foot speed and footwork are more important than bowling someone over.

Pads in Football vs. Soccer

Some rugby players do indeed wear something to protect a body part, usually a wrap over an injured joint, or a cut or big scrape. Some might even choose to cushion such non-uniform items ~ with soft padding only.

However in soccer, wearing any padding at all is extremely rare. Of the 3 sports, soccer allows the least amount of bodily contact. Still, soccer players often get hurt during intense moments, like when they bonk heads vying for a ball in the air, or stand idle in front of a penalty kick.

In soccer, the items players wear besides uniforms, socks, and cleats, are wraps or sleeves over the knees or elbows, or over ankles.

Face Masks on Football Helmets

The first face mask attached to a football helmet occurred in the middle of the 1930s, and early versions were nothing like the skinny bars we see today. Early players improvised with wire covered in rubber, or strips of clear hard plastic.

It’s interesting to think that top-level pro football players mostly did not wear face masks into the 1950s ~ even as the helmets got harder. Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown in 1953 came up with a single-barred face mask for his quarterback to protect a gruesomely injured mouth.

From there usage of face masks only grew in popularity, becoming mandatory in most leagues by the 1960s.

What do Football Players Wear Under Their Helmets?

Football fans will often see players on the sidelines, off the field of play, without their helmets on. They take them off mostly to let heat escape through their head to cool off, and also to make it easier to talk and see.

It is then that fans might notice other items still on their heads. What is all the fuss?

Many football players wear a synthetic skull cap, a bandana tied into a head covering, or another thin cloth-type of garment.

The former, the synthetic skull caps, have become quite modernized with materials that wick sweat away from the skin ~ which is important for football players because sweat drips down into their eyes.

Mostly these extra items are worn to hold back sweat. Some players choose to wear something thicker, maybe a thicker formal headband, to protect sensitive areas already injured.

Related Questions

Question: When was the very first football game?

Answer: It is mostly agreed that the first game of American football was played between the colleges of Princeton and Rutgers, in 1869.

Q.: Will rugby players ever have to wear helmets?

A.: Considering that new rules for rugby player safety have been introduced more consistently in recent years, it is possible. However, there is a strong belief that introducing hard pads and helmets to rugby would increase the chances for injury, not lessen them. Helmets and pads create a sense of security in players that can lead to reckless actions.

Q.: Why did American football almost get banned?

A.: Around the start of the 20th century, deaths and gruesome injuries in college football games reached all the way up to the White House, and Teddy Roosevelt issued a stern warning to change the rules or style of play, or face banishment. That’s right, the government threatened to ban football play. College football leaders obliged (of course), and many of their player safety elements were adopted by the NFL when it began in 1920.

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