Football, facemasks and making sense of safety

It’s Sunday, so I will spend a few hours today watching football. It’s been a part of my fall Sundays for decades. But as much as I enjoy watching football, I understand the moral complications of following the sport. There are injuries, horrendous injuries. It causes lifelong disability, mental illness, neurological damage. It ruins lives and families. It has led to, directly, to suicides. And the leagues have not always been honest about the risks, nor have they done all they can to mitigate them. They’re getting better, it would seem, but it’s still a dangerous, dangerous sport.

Football has always been dangerous. It’s a violent sport. Physical contact and collisions are in its DNA. When people first started playing, there were no shoulder pads, no helmets. Eventually, players started wearing protection. There were leather helmets, at first, then hard plastic helmets. Now, there are helmets specifically designed to lessen the risk of concussions.

And there are facemasks. The first facemasks were single bars, but they’ve grown more elaborate. Players now wear full cages, often with visors. It all makes sense, right? You don’t want to lose teeth. You don’t want to be poked in the eye.

Years ago, I watched a report on player safety. This was back in the 80s or 90s, so player safety wasn’t that much of a concern. A football analyst was being interviewed, and he noted that the facemask was the biggest amplifier of violence in football. The facemask has led to more and more injuries.

He noted that players, with the protection of facemasks, were now taught to lead with their faces while tackling. Whereas in the past, players were tackling with arms and shoulders, now they’re tackling leading with their heads.

I was taught this in minor football. I was told that as a defender, I had three weapons, three points with which to hit the ball carrier, my head and two shoulders. (Other coaches were a little more responsible; they taught to hit with your shoulder…though you’d still bring your head across the front of the ball carrier).

If you watch football today, you’ll see this. Tacklers leading with their heads and faces. Lineman crashing into each other face-first. Heads and necks take a lot of abuse. Concussions and spinal injuries result. Players are less concerned about collisions to both their own head and their opponents’ heads. It’s not necessarily malicious; it’s a natural human response. More risks can be taken when more safety measures are in place.

So the next time someone says that it makes no sense that bike helmets lead to more injuries, tell them to plop down and the couch one Sunday afternoon and watch a football game.

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