Youth Football Helmets and the Price of Safety

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The growing number of concussions in school football is a sad but predictable unintended consequence of over a century of advances in health and protection. Late 19th- and 20th-century technology reduced many catastrophic hazards by converting them to chronic ones. Giving present designs more cushioning to prevent concussion might result, manufacturers say, in a resurgence of potentially lethal fractures. (I have a review of such paradoxes of helmet evolution here.)

Similarly, boxing gloves ended the spectacularly bloody outcomes of bare-knuckle prize fighting—definitively studied by the historian Eliot Gorn—while increasing less visible cumulative brain damage from repeated rotational blows. According to one medical authority on sports concussions, the boxing helmet required in the U.S. amateur sport

does nothing to decrease the  torque caused by blows to the side of the head or
below the the jaw, which turn the head from the midline or upwards and backwards at an angle as the boxer stands or moves forward or backward. Its added weight, although not considerable when it is dry, may actually provide added momentum to the head and increase the torque, as well as the tendency of the leather glove to stick to the helmet momentarily before sliding off.

Safety measures following the widely publicized player fatalities of the early 20th century—that led President Theodore Roosevelt to threaten banning the sport—helped make the game more acceptable at the high school level but left the dilemma described by John S. Watterson over 20 years ago:

The plastic helmet, which distributes shock more evenly, was introduced in the 1940s amid objections reminiscent of those that accompanied the original solely leather helmets. Some critics argued—and still do—that the hard plastic helmet, used as an offensive weapon, has as much potential for causing as for preventing serious injuries. So the game remains the subject of periodic debate requiring a battery of experts to keep it in balance between offense and defense, bodily contact and safety.

I don't think the real question is whether helmet concussion safety could be improved. It's how much school districts and parents would be willing to pay for a next-generation design.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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