Sports Helmets: Hazardous to Your Health?

Can protective technology make sports more dangerous? That's what most women's lacrosse players and coaches seem to believe about proposals to require helmets, as reported by the New York Times:

Although some safety advocates call for head protection in women's lacrosse, almost everyone involved in the sport has said that its current ban on helmets for everyone but goaltenders is actually the safest approach. . . .

"It's hard to absolutely prove, but what we've seen is that behavior can change when athletes feel more protected, especially when it comes to the head and helmets," said Dr. Margot Putukian, Princeton's director of athletic medicine services and chairwoman of the U.S. Lacrosse safety committee. "They tend to put their bodies and heads in danger that they wouldn't without the protection. And they aren't as protected as they might think." 

And once a sport starts to require helmets, it's too late to turn back the clock:

Checking in professional hockey became considerably more vicious with the adoption of helmets in the 1970s and '80s, and football players felt so protected by their helmets and face masks that head-to-head collisions became commonplace at every age level. Scaling back protection now in order to dissuade violent play would be too dangerous, experts say, both physically and legally.

There's a related issue in youth football; I've already blogged about it here, and traced the military origins of helmet culture here. The topic has curious sidelights. Almost 75 years before the 1960s, pre-helmet football players were the first college students to wear their hair long, as cushioning. And there's a precedent for women's Lacrosse coaches' opposition to helmets. Swarthmore College was among the last schools to change from leather helmets to the new post-World War Two plastic models because the coach believed they encouraged more dangerous play and resulted in more injuries.

In fact, the historically Quaker college has an interesting role in sports lore. A photograph of one of its players in 1905, severely beaten by the opposing team, was said to have inspired President Theodore Roosevelt to force reform of the game. (That's a legend based on a non-existent photo, according to football historians). And abolishing the game in 2000 split the college's Board of Managers, normally committed to decisions by unanimous consensus. (A good column about it is here.) So whatever is decided in women's lacrosse, the controversy isn't likely to go away.

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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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