Sunday, December 13, 2009

Heads Will Roll

The quarterback is looking for a receiver and suddenly realizes he doesn't have time to make a pass. He tucks the ball and begins to run. He gains several yards and as he disappears into a pile of players I hear the report of a big hit, pads popping -- that distinctive sound that coaches listen for and fans applaud. Then out of the pile-up flies a helmet. It bounces once and lands right at my feet. When the players untangle the quarterback emerges and moves toward me to pick up his helmet. He looks up at me and says, "You saw that hold against my team on the previous play but you didn't see that hit on me?" Fortunately he was not hurt but this incident points out two problems with our game today.

First, helmets come off too easily. In 2007 the National Federation of High School Sports (NFHS) enacted a rule requiring that chin straps be attached with four snaps. In 2008, the rule was clarified to require four separate attachment points. From where I stand, as a referee on Friday nights, these rules changes have had little effect on reducing the number of times helmets come off during impact. I saw it every week this past season. As a spectator, every game I have watched on television this season has featured a helmet coming off. YouTube has over one hundred video clips of this happening.

Jones-Adams hit; LSU-Ark 2009

In the 2009 Alabama - Miss. St. game, Heisman Trophy candidate Mark Ingram's helmet came off and his face was bloodied by an opponent's facemask immediately afterwards.

Forty years ago, high school players complained that it was almost impossible to get the helmet on to begin with, and just as hard to get it off. In today's media crazed atmosphere and the increased presence of cameras at games, do the players want their helmets to come off easily? One of the nation's leading researchers in this field, Dr. Stefan Duma says, "My opinion is they come off because some players want them too, smile for camera etc. so they wear it loose." If Dr. Duma is correct, then no amount of research by the manufacturers and no amount of rules changes will improve the situation. The top three helmet manufacturers in the United States are Riddel, Schutt, and Adams (formerly Bike). Since the early seventies and a few high profile cases of head injury and concussions, much of the research has been focused on designing head gear that will reduce the chance of or prevent concussions. Many technological advances have been made. In 2002, Riddell introduced their "Revolution" helmet and in 2007, Schutt added the line of "Ion 4-D" products which they tout as "the most advanced helmet in the market". Adam's premier product is the "A-4".

Perhaps chin strap design is or should be the next area of signifcant research. A source in the NOCSAE (National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment) reports that one area of research involves the loosening of the chin strap on impact caused by the compression of the interior padding. Such a change inside the helmet would result in easier removal. Combine this phenomena with Dr. Stefan's theory and you've got a recipe for disaster. A player with no helmet is the most vulnerable for head injury.

The February 2007 issue of Popular Mechanics reports that extreme football collisions can measure up to 150 g's compared to a roller coaster's five. Player safety depends upon the equipment to distribute the incoming energy of impact to lessen the severity. Typically discussions involving player safety and indeed, much of the research and development by makers of the equipment, focus on helmets and shoulder pads. The article referenced in Popular Mechanics is similar although it does mention the nagging frequency of knee injuries.

The second problem is that high school rules do not adequately address the issue of helmets coming off. Current rules deal only with the helmet coming off of the ball carrier while he is in possession of the ball. At that point, the ball is immediately dead and the covering official should sound his whistle. Other rules prohibit leading with the head (spearing) or use of the helmet as a weapon. There are currently no rules related to helmets coming off due to contact other than helmet to helmet. When a defender leads with his shoulder and the runner's helmet hits the ground, there is no penalty marked on the ground either.
The NFHS has begun to address the problem of helmets coming off in both their rules committee and an ad hoc committee. Coaches need to get more involved in the issue as well. I often hear a coach shout from the sideline that we missed a call on helmet contact. Those shouts are even louder when the helmet comes off. Prior to the game, a coach must verify to the officials that his team is properly equipped. Maybe being properly equipped should include having head gear fitted correctly so that it doesn't come off so easily for the cameras. Now that the athletic governing agencies, equipment manufacturers, and fans are taking more interest, improvement should be seen soon, or heads will roll.

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