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Many things you see during National Football League games can stir the curiosity ~ including why some players insist on sticking thin plastic visors under their face masks. Isn’t the mask protection enough?
The main reason NFL players use a football visor is to protect their eyes, and, to a lesser extent, the skin on their faces. During all the body-to-body contact in football games, fingers poke through gaps in face masks to cause injuries.
Scratches to the eyes of professional athletes are a very serious matter. The plastic visors, not part of the helmet or face mask but a temporary attached accessory, achieves that needed safeguard.
Still, it begs a question: Why don’t face masks prevent eye and face damage?
Who Was the First Player to Wear a Visor?
Hall of Fame offensive lineman Randall McDaniel, who played most of his career with the Minnesota Vikings, is credited with pioneering use of the visor in football. The first was actually tinted very dark ~ to hide an eye patch he had to wear for his first NFL game in 1988.
McDaniel had his eye poked at practice the Friday before the weekly Sunday game, and he did not want both fans and the opposition to see an eye completely patched over.
Besides protecting the injured eye, the player did not want opponents trying to gain a competitive advantage because they knew he could not see on a side. Football as a game has become that detailed and technical!
The dark shields became a trend, aided when superstar players like LaDanian Tomlinson used them for every game. In fact, for Tomlinson, the appearance of not being able to see his face and eyes became a trademark.
Some players see hiding their eyes as an advantage, believing that defenders will peek to see which way the eyes look, for indications of the next move. Always stay a step ahead, right?
The darkly tinted visors lasted only a decade in the NFL.
Why Can’t NFL Players have Dark Visors?
It was not heavily publicized, but as the 1998 NFL season progressed, fans noticed that something looked different on the players. They could see more faces.
They could see all the players’ eyes.
The league banned darkly tinted or -colored visors as part of an effort to address concussions in the sport. Only clear visors are allowed now so medical personnel (e.g. team trainers and their assistants) can see a player’s eyes without removing the helmet.
When a player is not moving on a field, suffering from an injury, immediately medical personnel want to identify the injury so they can decide the proper treatment. It could involve the neck, or spine, and because of that NFL players with head injuries are immediately immobilized.
That is, their heads cannot be moved at all. Which posed a problem when no one could look into the pupils of the injured player due to a shaded visor that could not be removed without taking off the helmet, which requires moving the head.
As responses to on-field concussions became more of a public issue, the NFL began adjusting rules, weighted heavily on the side of player safety. The dark visors were part of that effort.
However, some NFL players still wear the tinted visors ~ and many more may in the future.
Are Tinted Visors Illegal All the Time?
Starting in 1988, dark visors are banned for NFL game play, unless the player has a medical exemption approved by the league.
Reasons for this medical exemption are players who suffer from migraines, or who have eyes very sensitive to light. With a doctor’s approval and confirmation by the league, NFL players can stick a tinted visor on the helmet instead of the clear version.
Why did the NFL Ban Custom Face Masks?
Around the same time visors were becoming the fashion trend for NFL players, so, too, were customized face masks. Soon, the traditional few bars of a face mask ~ which protect faces while still allowing fans to see faces ~ were replaced by crazy-quilt designs where everything from the mid-nose to the mid-neck were covered by bars.
Football players do not like holes between face masks not only because fingers can protrude through them, but also because with the holes the masks can be more easily gripped. That is, players purposely grabbing a face mask to pull with hope of avoiding a referee’s detection.
For the eye-poking, it became so worrisome that Los Angeles Rams offensive guard Jackie Slater, way back in the late 1970s, added protection of the eyes by having a running back’s thin 2-barred mask attached right over that hole.
Further protection from finger pokes was a major part of the reason Justin Tuck of the New York Giants began customizing his face masks, until ultimately they looked like a big white waffle over his face.
In fact, he and other players used to customize their face masks for every season, in part to just look different.
Ultimately such custom face masks were also banned, starting in 2014 (although the masks for a few players, like Tuck, were grandfathered in). The main reasons for the new rule were to ensure uniformity among players and teams; and because it was determined that too much extra weight from a face mask may not be healthy for the neck and spine.
As opposed to crashing into one another, right? Actually, the studies that deemed too-heavy face masks a danger also considered how that tiny weight can cause problems after repeated impacts. It was good enough for NFL rule-makers.
NFL Uniform Rules and League Image Maintenance
It is important to note that some of the NFL’s rules regarding the helmet, its accessories, and anything else to do with the uniform involve style.
The league’s own Game Operations Manual states:
In line with this directive, players must keep their jerseys tucked in (when they are aware; sometimes jerseys get pulled out in game play and the player does not realize it immediately); socks must be white from mid calf down to the shoe top, and an approved team color up from there to the bottom of the pants; and players no longer can wear bandannas over their heads, even if underneath helmets.
At every level of football play, all the way down to the pee-wee level of the youngest players, they choose to stick a shield under the face mask. Why?
As with the big boys, protection, of course. But also because it adds an element of style. Shields also let them emulate their heroes seen on television or in stadiums.
It is estimated that up to 14 players in an NFL season could have the exemption to wear the dark tinted visors in games.
Since they are banned because medical personnel cannot easily remove them to see a player’s eyes, work is underway to come up with easily removed visors ~ which in effect should make them legal again. (Currently they cannot be removed without also removing the helmet, a no-no for suspected neck or spine injuries, which require uncompromised neurological evaluation by a medical professional).
Of course, ultimately it’s up to the NFL, and only time will tell.
Meanwhile, fans can still see their favorite players wearing dark-tinted visors. They are allowed for practices, and, in recent years, for use in the Pro Bowl game.
Question: What happened after Randall McDaniel’s eye healed?
Answer: After the patch was removed, his eyes remained very sensitive to light, so he just continued wearing the dark tinted visor. In fact, he just continued wearing it for his entire Hall of Fame career ~ up until 1988, that is. By then his eye injury was healed enough to preclude a medical exemption. (He simply switched to a lighter tint but continued wearing a visor).
Q.: How are visors attached to helmets?
A.: McDaniel’s ground-breaker was attached with simple plastic zip-ties, which could be hooked right onto a face mask. Today’s visors are more modernized and designed specifically to fit into the space allowed by NFL helmets. They are cut to a shape that allows them to be easily attached to the helmet; and most modern helmets come with extra holes for just such a purpose.
Q.: Why do we see some players with funky-colored visors?
A.: For the 2019 season, the league amended the rules to let players wear visors slightly tinted. The result was shields with a light tint, with a pink-like hue. Darker tints remained banned.
Q.: What is the primary reason NFL players wear eye black?
A: The primary reasons are to reduce glare from the sun or stadium lights, and for some, to intimidate opponents or showcase style and camaraderie.