Con Games: Football Playing Head Games

Football on the pro and the collegiate level is on the brink of a catastrophe that you can see coming a mile away: somebody is going to die.

I bet that got your attention -- and I bet you have no idea what I'm talking about.
It's this simple: the National Football League (NFL) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) are a permanent migraine away from a football player being fatally wounded while playing without a helmet.

If you think players always play with their helmets on you would be wrong. In recent years, probably the last five years, helmets flying off football players in the midst of a play has become an epidemic. In the 1990s and earlier, you could go a whole season without seeing a helmet come off. Now you can't go a half of any game without seeing a lid go flying like a beheading.

Ironically, this phenomenon began when helmets were putatively improved by installing a double-chinstrap system to keep them in place. Somehow the physics of chinstrap placement backfired: push on it the wrong way, usually below the chin, and the helmet with the double-chinstrap has a tendency to leave the player's head.

I see this as a self-evident truth because of something I did 42 years ago, during the two summers when I was a ball boy for the New York Jets, when Buddy Ryan was a rookie line coach and his son, Rex, now the coach of the Jets, was just a little kid getting in the way in the locker room.

I worked for the Jets equipment manager, a likeable, chain-smoking, worry-wart named Bill Hampton who took great pride in his work. Lockers had to be set up just so, with all equipment in the identical place and the helmets nice and shiny. Hamp was in charge of everything, including the helmets, and in those days everyone wore a single chinstrap, except Don Maynard, now in the NFL Hall of Fame, who wore no chinstrap at all, but insisted on picking out his own jockstrap every day.

In Hamp's world, where I lived out my youth for two summers, a helmet coming off for any reason would have been an invitation to apoplexy. We would have noticed. It would have been a big deal. It happened back then -- but a fan could go seasons without seeing it. A player without a helmet was so rare that you noticed: so that's what Bubba Smith looks like!

At a minimum, I would say helmets come off players ten times more often now than when single chinstraps were the rule. As far as I know, only a few quarterbacks go with the single chinstrap--Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, and Kyle Orton--but everyone on a football field these days runs the real risk of separating head from helmet, with all the risk that implies.

It reminds me somehow of my Uncle Sidney Wood, who won Wimbledon in 1938 and later ran the Supreme Court artificial tennis surface business. Uncle Sidney's men, me among them, would lay down this beautiful green tennis tapestry alongside some rich guy's house. Everything was perfect -- the seams lined up, all balls bouncing true -- until the first time it rained, when Supreme Court would shrink up like a small boy's testicles in a cold shower. After another rainfall or two, and the court would be all but unplayable, I kid you not.

The helmet manufacturers are in exactly the same boat, with a superior product that simply doesn't work. Their helmets with their double-chinstrap configuration look letter-perfect -- until a player goes into the game, at which point the chances of his helmet popping off are... let's just say the odds are not acceptable.

With all the novel attention of late in the NFL and NCAA on concussions and head trauma, don't you think it might help if they found a helmet that wouldn't fall off?