Moore: NFL concussions up? The fix is easy — get rid of the helmets

Jan 25, 2020

by Greg Moore, The Arizona Republic

Arizona Republic sports columnist argues with a couple of experts in Javier Cardenas and Mike Haynes.

If we really care about player safety, then we need to use our common sense and get rid of hard-shell football helmets. It comes to mind in the aftermath of an NFL report that showed concussions were up slightly last season.

The idea of getting rid of helmets isn’t new. Two-time Super Bowl-winning wide Hines Ward raised it on the Dan Patrick Show in 2012.

“If you want to prevent concussions, take the helmet off,” Ward said. “Play old-school football with the leather helmets, no face mask. When you put a helmet on, you’re going to use it as a weapon, just like you use shoulder pads as a weapon.”

Two prominent NFL wide receivers, Larry Fitzgerald (left) and Michael Crabtree. Would not wearing a helmet lead to fewer concussions in football, or open the door to more injuries? (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports)

There’s a budding movement supporting this line of thinking. There’s a no-pad, no-helmet, full- contact, semi-pro league, A7FL, heading into its sixth season. A Texas seven-on-seven league recently adopted rules for which types of soft-shell helmets will be required for play. And flag football leagues around the nation are using soft helmets from the youth to adult levels.

But that doesn’t mean everyone can imagine it working in the NFL.
“The short answer is no, I cannot,” Dr. Javier Cardenas said.

'We would see worse outcomes'

Cardenas is the director of the Concussion and Brain Injury Center at the Phoenix-based Barrow Neurological Institute. He’s an expert on concussions and traumatic brain injury and a member of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee.

For him, it would be like removing safety controls from the vehicles we drive.

“Can you imagine a world where we took crumple zones out of cars? Or where we took air bags out? Seatbelts out? ABS and stability control out? I think we would see increased injuries. I think we would see worse outcomes.”

Cardenas is an advocate of a multifaceted approach to making the game safer. And the NFL has been using many of the measures he supports, including rule changes that ban head-to-head hits and improving helmet technology to reduce concussion risk.

The NFL data boosts Cardenas’s case. There were 224 concussions last year. There had been 214 in 2018. And both of those numbers were a huge drop from 281 in 2017. League doctors attribute the reduction to changes in kickoff and targeting rules.

Still, no helmets can prevent concussions entirely. With this knowledge, the Concussion Legacy Foundation has focused on eliminating youth tackle football through its Flag Football Under 14 campaign.

To raise awareness, the group picked an all-time team of players who didn’t start hitting in pads until high school.

It’s a who’s who of NFL greats, including Jerry Rice, Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Anthony Munoz, Lawrence Taylor and Mike Haynes.

'Make sure every single kid knows'

“I started playing in 10th grade,” Haynes said. “I was a baseball player before that.”

The two-time All-American from Arizona State now works with the Pro Football Retired Players Association, an independent group formed to help players plan for life after the gridiron.

It has a division focused on health, wellness and medical research.
He’s familiar with the no-helmet argument.