NY Jets head coach Robert Saleh is concerned with the NFL’s protective helmet shells, and he’s not wrong.
With CTE awareness being higher than ever, the NFL has attempted to limit concussions for its players. They’ve done this by requiring non-skill position players to wear a protective helmet shell through the second preseason game, called the “Guardian Cap”. These are supposed to limit impact, and therefore, concussions.
Speaking to the media on Saturday, Saleh voiced his confusion and frustration with the NFL’s new policy.
“I do think because of the soft blow, it’s lending the players to use their heads a little bit more … I do think that if you’re waiting until the first game for that shock to happen, I don’t know, time will tell. It’s just interesting with those Guardian Caps and what exactly are we trying to accomplish.”
While Saleh admitted that the NFL had the right intentions, he implies that the results could cause more harm than good. And to be frank, I think he’s right on the money here – for more than one reason.
The Helmets Changed, but the Concussions Didn’t
The evolution of the NFL helmet was to help protect the player. Plastic helmets with facemasks helped stop the superficial and structural damage players suffered. But in reality, it did little to stop the concussion problem players faced.
In 2011, there was a large study that showed how little difference new helmets made compared to the old helmets in terms of stopping concussions.
In that piece, Pete Klinkhammer – AD of services for the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota – stated, “any kind of helmet, regardless of its structure, can’t prevent the brain from moving around in the skull.”
Klinkhammer went on to say that teaching proper technique is the best way to limit concussions in football. With the NFL forcing players to wear their Guardian Caps, technique isn’t as vital; a flaw that I believe Robert Saleh sees.
With the NFL’s Guardian Caps, players are more likely to lead with their helmet to make tackles. The lessened impact leads to a false belief of safety, but that isn’t the reality. The consequences of that form of tackling could have catastrophic effects on player health going forward.
An example of this is seen in another professional sport – soccer.
Different Sports, Same Results
Despite not being known as a contact sport, up to 22% of injuries in soccer are concussions from players using their head to hit the ball. A large part of that is because players don’t believe there’s any danger. But “heading”, even in practice, causes the brain to rattle inside the skull. This leads to concussions.
This also occurs in combat sports, where sparring with headgear is a requirement in most training camps. It’s obvious that a sport where punches and kicks are thrown will lead to concussions, but the severity is drastically downplayed in sparring. This, too, is because of the false belief that extra headgear will limit potential damage to the brain.
This leads to athletes being “punch drunk”, simply from sparring. It also lends itself to bad habits during actual matches. This is the concern that Robert Saleh has with the NFL’s Guardian Caps.
The NFL has had a more “hands on” approach when trying to stop concussions. But the Guardian Cap may be an example of taking two steps back for one step forward. And in the end, what’s intended to help player safety, may be a detriment to it.