Football's Paradigm Shift: Ban the Helmet

Football needs an intervention. It's like our favorite uncle, who we know has a problem that the family has long ignored. But, now we've reached a crisis that we can't overlook -- an epidemic in concussions and a link to degenerative brain diseases caused by tackling with the head.

That's why my co-author, Allen St. John, and I are proposing banning helmets in professional football.

Hear us out.

Football needs what Thomas Kuhn, the MIT professor who was a pioneer in the history of science, called a "paradigm shift." In his landmark book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn argued that fundamental change doesn't come in small, gradual increments. It comes suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, in the form of radical, drastic shifts. A revolution, if you will. And the prospect of playing football without a helmet -- as outrageous as it sounds -- could be the catalyst for football's long overdue paradigm shift.

The first thing to understand is that football is much more complicated than it seems. Cal Tech professor John Doyle argues that you need to think of football as a dynamic system; it acts like a big blobby organism. If you poke it here, it will change somewhere else. A small shift can create big changes down the road. And unexpected ones.

When writing Newton's Football, Allen and I found one striking example of this kind of small change -- the introduction of the facemask. The introduction of the first modern football helmet 60 years ago changed the game, but not in the way you might think.

During a game in 1953, Otto Graham, a star quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, got a huge gash on his face. Coach Paul Brown realized that one more hit like that could put Graham out for the season, so he jury-rigged a crude facemask that attached to Graham's plastic helmet. This facemask protected Graham's vulnerable cheek and helped the Browns advance to the NFL championship game.

But it did something bigger. As the facemask became widely used, it changed the way the game was played. Before the facemask, a player wouldn't dream of hitting an opponent with his head. Why? Because he'd break his nose. But with a facemask protecting him from these kind of bloody injuries, a player was now willing to hit headfirst. The facemask changed the game, but it didn't make it safer. It made it more dangerous.

That's because today's football helmets don't protect players against concussions.

If introducing a helmet that's not as protective as it seems caused the game's head injury epidemic, then maybe eliminating helmets might have the opposite effect.

Mike Ditka, a legendary player and a Super Bowl winning coach, has argued in favor of getting rid of the facemask. "I said a long time ago if you want to change the game, take the mask off the helmet. A lot of pretty boys aren't going to stick their face in there." The late Joe Paterno echoed this sentiment, long before controversy ended his tenure at Penn State, by saying, "Then, you would get back to shoulder blocking and shoulder tackling and you wouldn't have all those heroes out there."

The pro-helmet side of the debate will argue that people will die on the field without a helmet.

Not so fast. That assumes that players will play the game exactly as they did before. Our position is that a radical change in equipment will result in a radically different way of playing the game. There are other contact sports in which players don't wear helmets -- from soccer to basketball to rugby and Australian Rules football -- and overall they're safer than football.

The problem of head injuries is a complex and multi-pronged one, and while high-tech helmets and genetic studies represent positive steps, the quickest and most direct way to address the problem is to simply stop players from hitting each other with their heads. So far this hasn't been easy. Head trauma studies, rule changes, and hefty fines haven't made much of a dent in the problem. That's because there's a disconnect between the infraction and the penalty.

But if a player realizes that what he's risking isn't a chance at a brain injury a few years down the road, or a possible fine from the league, but a bloodied nose or a shattered cheekbone that will take him out of the game right now, that's likely to get his attention.

There's a term in psychology that addresses this: compensatory behavior. Studies have shown that people modify their behavior toward a certain pre-set "balance point" of risk. For example, people driving cars loaded with safety features tend to drive faster than they would drive a normal car.

It also works in reverse. By eliminating a perceived safety measure -- like a helmet -- players would naturally take less risk.

Especially if they were given an alternative to tackling with the head. Ask Bobby Hosea. A nationally known youth coach, Hosea's concern for his son and his 12-year-old teammates convinced him to create a radical new method of tackling that gets the head out of harm's way. Hosea's star student, Dashon Goldson, is a Pro Bowl defensive back and is known as one of the league's hardest hitters. Safer hits don't need to be boring.

A radical idea such as a helmet-free NFL is a serious thought experiment that will catalyze change, particularly if we gather the best minds in football and from outside the game to consider it. If we don't do something revolutionary -- and a little bit crazy -- like this, football will continue to face the same problems with head injuries. Football's head injury crisis is fundamentally a behavioral problem and the quickest way to change behavior is to at least consider taking players' noggins out of those plastic shells that allow them to use their heads as weapons.

It is time for football's paradigm shift and a radical intervention. Let's help our crazy uncle help himself.

Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph.D. is dedicated to making science understandable to the general public. Before taking on the call to popularize science, she was a mechanical engineering professor at Yale University for ten years. She is the author of Save Our Science (TED Books), which is based on her TED talk. She also co-wrote with Allen St. John the forthcoming title, Newton's Football (Random House), which looks at the stealthy science behind the game.