Doug Robinson: Helmets may be the problem, not the solution for concussions

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 18 2011 8:08 p.m. MST

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie lies motionless on the ground after being hit in the second quarter of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Indianapolis, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010. Collie later walked off the field.

Associated Press

Maybe you're a purist or an old-timer and you don't like it one bit, but the wussi-fication of the NFL is going to continue. There will be fewer big hits on receivers coming across the middle. Fewer train wrecks in the backfield. Fewer NASCAR-like crashes.

What are they going to do next, you're thinking, put skirts on the quarterback and flags on everybody else? Convert to two-hand touch? Force linemen to count three-Mississippis?

Read it and weep, Dick Butkus and Jack Lambert. The running game is already disappearing from the league; it's a passing league. It's more finesse than brawn. And now with the arrival of the Concussion Epidemic, it will be full speed ahead. There will be fewer big hits. The league will continue to fine players for acts of violence that were once encouraged and applauded.

It's painful for some football aficionados to see the way the game is changing, but it's the only real solution. Players are so much bigger, stronger and faster than they were historically that injuries are inevitable and the game must adapt.

I bring all this up now because some experts, including the NFL, seem to think that one of the cures for concussions is the helmet. It's not.

For solutions, see above.

With the league pushing for an expanded 18-game season when player safety is the topic du jour, the NFL is desperate for solutions. Much of the focus of the NFL's "concussion summit" last month in New York seemed to focus on the helmet. They invited helmet manufacturers, physicists, military biomechanics and others in a search for a helmet that could address the problem of concussions.

According to the New York Times, "The NFL heard several hours' worth of strategies not just to develop a concussion-relevant standard, but also to improve helmet performance and promote research." They discussed "polycarbonate crowns and absorbing foam." They discussed in-helmet accelerometers to measure the impact of collisions to assist manufacturers in the development of helmets.

It's ambitious, but almost pointless. None of it will prevent concussions. The helmet prevents bumps and bruises to teeth and noses, but not brains. Just ask Doctors Jim Snyder and Brent Rich, who opened a concussion clinic at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in 2008, well before concussions became part of a national discussion.

"There is no good helmet that can prevent concussions," says Rich, a BYU team physician who spent 20 years in a similar capacity with Arizona State and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Snyder, a neuropsychologist, takes it from there. "The fundamental problem is overcoming a law of physics. What's in motion stays in motion until it hits an opposing force — you've got the brain bouncing off the inside of the skull."

No helmet can prevent that. Players could wear astronaut helmets or deep-sea diving helmets or NASCAR helmets — none of it would help.

Snyder offers an object lesson: If you shake an egg back and forth, the yoke inside breaks and scrambles. If you put a helmet on the egg and shake the egg, the result would be the same. There is nothing to prevent the yoke — or brain — from bouncing against the sides of its container.

Helmets not only are not the solution, they're part of the problem. They give players a false sense of security; they make him feel invulnerable; they make him lead with his head.

So where does that leave the NFL, and, for that matter, football at any level? The only way address the problem of concussions on the football field is to teach proper tackling techniques and outlaw certain types of hits.

Tacklers shouldn't "drop" the head or lead with the head. They should stick their face in an opponent's numbers.

Twenty years ago it might have been laughable to suggest a rule against hitting "defenseless players." Players were taught to hit everything that moved and to keep their head on a swivel against such hits. Now those hits are outlawed. So are helmet-to-helmet hits.

"Rugby players have far fewer concussions than football does," says Dr. Snyder. "They don't wear helmets, so their tackling techniques are different. They wrap up their opponents like a bear and bring them down, rather than spear them. We had a high school football player who also played rugby. He tackled like a football player while he was playing rugby — he speared him — and knocked himself out."

Says Rich, "The big hits are always shown on 'SportsCenter.' The high school and college kids see that and they want to get a big hit. Coaches have to teach aggressiveness and technique and have players be active on defense while also restraining themselves."

Get used to it; the game is changing.

e-mail: drob@desnews.com

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