Will We See a Helmetless NFL?

If you’ve ever watched rugby, you know there are plenty of people crazy enough to run into each other at full speed without helmets – without much in the way of pads at all. These are some of the best athletes in the world, and they all look like they have a death wish.

Could that insanity be the future of the NFL? It’s been suggested, and by none other than Dr. John York (although he may have reversed course on his original comments), one of the chairmen for the NFL’s health and safety committee. He doesn’t think it’s coming in 2016 or anything, but he said there was a chance things would trend there eventually.

The basic premise is this: The helmet is a weapon. Guys are reckless. They go at 100 miles per hour and drill each other with these helmets like the Juggernaut trying to run through a wall.

The result is a slew of concussions, neck injuries and even CTE. In that sense, the helmet is doing more harm than good. It’s supposed to protect players, but it’s causing them to be dangerous and careless and to even actively use it to hurt others – or themselves.

Without helmets, the theory goes, guys would tone it down. They’d stop launching and leading with their heads. These hits could even be made illegal, but the way to get guys to really do it would be to take away that weapon.

Don’t let them feel invincible, and they won’t play like they’re invincible.

So, does it work in rugby? Obviously, in the United States, rugby is nowhere near as huge as football, but it still has a solid following, and there are plenty of pro stats from overseas, as well.

For instance, some reports have claimed that concussions are on the rise in rugby, such as one coming from England’s Premiership Rugby league. While that may be true and the trend is alarming, they still only reported 86 concussions in 2014. The year before, they had 54.

The NFL had 123 in 2014 alone.

A big part of the reason is that those missile-like hits that plague NFL fields aren’t legal in rugby. Players are supposed to wrap up. The whole idea of tackling is different, and the fundamentals are taught differently.

Removing helmets in the NFL may take some of the recklessness out of tackling.

Removing helmets in the NFL may take some of the recklessness out of tackling.

There are exceptions, but rugby isn’t about the big hit, smoking the guy who is not looking and coming across the field. It’s about contact and strength and wrapping someone up to drag him to the ground. It’s a very different style of hitting for a very different game.

That type of tackling doesn’t breed concussions. Plus, it’s the way players want to tackle when they don’t have helmets. It’s safer on both ends.

If this was to happen, football culture would have to change. The very game would change first. The big hits would be made illegal, the three point stance would be out. But the ideology at the heart of the game would also have to shift. Players would have to want to play differently.

If it didn’t change, people would die. That’s not even an exaggeration. Some of the hits that have resulted in concussions in recent years are so brutal that players without helmets would be killed.

Personally, that’s why I think we’ll never get there. No disrespect to York, but I don’t think anyone will want to take that chance. That’s speaking for players, coaches, and league executives. No one would want to sign on for something like that.

Fans would also hate it. Fans love those big hits. They’re the ones that get you up out of your seat. They’re some of the most memorable plays of the year.

If anything, we’ll see a shift to safer helmets. Wes Welker came back with a new, larger helmet after his concussions in Denver. The focus will be on both getting rid of dangerous hits and upgrading helmet technology so it’s better suited to protecting players when those hits take place.

But you never know. Perhaps the only way to solve it is to toss helmets out entirely. It sounds backward, like the exact opposite of what needs to be done, but maybe it’s like Columbus sailing west.

To Top