The Facemask Needs to Go

Jacob Eisenberg investigates a unique approach to limiting head injuries in football…

Mohamed Massoquoi of the Cleveland Browns catches the ball at the Steelers’ forty yard line and starts running toward the sideline. Before he can gain acceleration, he gets leveled by James Harrison- the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Harrison’s helmet crashes into Massoquoi’s helmet and the receiver goes down to the ground unconscious.

After the game, Harrison is fined by the league a hefty sum of 75,000 dollars for the hit. In fury and confusion of the fine, Harrison strongly considers retiring from the NFL claiming that he didn’t do anything wrong and the league no longer allows him to play the way he always had. Meanwhile, Massoquoi’s injury has been diagnosed as a moderate concussion; he will be out for the next three games at least. This scene has become a constant in the NFL over the course of this 2010 season. Players are hitting harder and getting hit harder than ever before. The results of these hits include season- ending injuries, permanent brain damage, and memory loss. A simple way of avoiding these fatal injuries from ever happening is easy; remove the facemask from the NFL helmet. While the removal of the facemask may increase minor injuries in the short term, it would substantially reduce the major health risks of NFL players in the long term.

In the 1950’s, NFL team owners agreed to implement the facemask to the league because they feared quarterbacks were breaking their teeth and noses too frequently. As Bryant Gumbel noticed 60 years later, “better the guys lose a few teeth than lose the memory of playing the game at all” (Gumbel).

By removing the facemask from the league, the NFL would be ensuring an end to players using their helmets as weapons. In week six of the NFL season, James Harrison was one of three players to be fined for a helmet-to-helmet collision- the tackle that leads to concussions. With the facemask, players like Harrison feel no repercussion to bulldozing the offensive player head-first because the facemask braces the tackler from suffering the worst of the contact. Without a facemask protecting players, hard-hitters would never tackle an opponent by leading with his face. As Harrison stated after the game, “Of course I wasn’t trying to injure him. When I play, I try to hurt my opponents because that’s the way football is; hurt or be hurt. I’ve been playing that way my whole life. Hurting and injuring are completely different, the NFL should know that” (Schefter).  By attacking head first, Harrison admitted he knowingly was going to hurt Massoquoi. What Harrison didn’t know was that his tackle would lead to Massoquoi sustaining a serious concussion. In this NFL season, there have been over 150 reported concussions suffered (AP). Of those concussions, nearly all were suffered by offensive players on helmet-to-helmet tackles. Experts estimate the removal of the facemask would reduce helmet-to-helmet collisions by nearly 90% (Raley).

Concussions have become one of the most prevalent injuries in sports. Because they are so common, players and fans do not take the injury too seriously. What people are unaware about concussions is that they not only leave long term damage to the brain; they are serious enough to take someone’s life if the concussion isn’t treated properly. In September of 2008, high school junior Ryne Dougherty of Montclair, New Jersey suffered his first concussion. Three weeks later, in October, Dougherty was prematurely cleared to play in his team’s final game. On the first play of the game, Dougherty suffered a helmet-to-helmet collision and went unconscious. 48 hours later, the junior was taken off life- support and was pronounced dead. A removal of the facemask could have saved Dougherty from ever sustaining a concussion in the first place (Ryan). If the facemask was removed, players on a high school level would be terrified to tackle their opponents head-first. This would result in a lighter toll on players at a pre-professional level, leading to longer professional careers.

Despite overwhelming dangers of not reporting a concussion, NFL players are motivated to play through the pain and earn respect from teammates. Somehow, the risks don’t outweigh the rewards of playing with a concussion. In fact, “Thirty of 160 NFL players surveyed by The Associated Press from Nov. 2-15 replied that they have hidden or played down the effects of a concussion” (AP).  In the cases of former superstar running backs Brian Westbrook and Clinton Portis, the pressure to perform at a superstar level kept these two players from reporting dizziness in games and eventually led to both stars’ careers deteriorating prematurely. Though both former stars are still able to contribute to teams at the NFL level this year, the results of playing with head trauma in 2009 will be clearer in years after their career ends.

As former All-Pro lineman Kyle Turley recently discovered, concussions that went unreported in his playing career had a backlash that will stay with him for the rest of his life. After benefiting off of a healthy and consistent nine year career at one of the NFL’s most grueling positions, Turley walked away from the game in 2007 with a reputation for being a constant at a position of variables. Only two years after retirement, Turley found difficulty completing some of life’s easiest activities. After passing out in a bar in 2009, Turley was rushed to the hospital where his doctor diagnosed him with Post Concussion Syndrome. When Turley tried to recall a specific hit over his career that stood out, he could not.  Instead, Turley recalled a general sequence on any given Sunday, “You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field—fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you’re seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions—boom, boom, boom—lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.” Turley later went on to explain that this series of events was far from a rarity on any given Sunday. You’re told either that you’re hurt or that you’re injured. There is no middle ground. If you are hurt, you can play. If you are injured, you can’t, and the line is whether you can walk and if you can put on a helmet and pads.” (Gladwell). Turley later admitted that the offensive lineman position changed greatly even over his tenure in the NFL. At the start of his pro career, Turley described “body technique” as the key to a successful block. By the end of his career, Turley described the offensive line position as, “… a fight, it’s a battle in itself, a war, a very primitive one. There are no weapons, outside of fists and the helmet you have on” (McCollough). If Turley and his opponents played the game without facemasks, the physical toll on the head would have been more tolerable and possibly would have kept Turley from getting PCS.

ESPN the Magazine recently declared that backup players were the least likely to tell their coaches about having symptoms of a concussion. With all of the pressure to keep their job on a non-guaranteed salary, a player would go to great lengths to hide a headache. However, even the superstars in the NFL attempt to stay on the field by hiding their ailments from coaches and trainers. All-Pro Packer Quarterback Aaron Rodgers recently tried to reenter a crucial game with playoff implications against the Detroit Lions knowing his head wasn’t fully with him. Rodgers’ top receiving threat and teammate of six years, Donald Driver, noticed Rodgers’ pupils dilating and told his quarterback to take the rest of the game off. Rodgers did so and the team lost. Still Driver had no regrets about telling Rodgers to sit, “This is just a game. Your life is more important than a game”’ (Keown). A Coach has so much responsibility in every game that monitoring the health of his players is nearly impossible. Had Rodgers gone back out onto the field, lower-tier players from around the league would have looked at the reentry as a symbol of courage – not as an act of foolishness. Luckily, Rodgers stayed out letting lower tier players know that it is acceptable to sit out even when you feel able to play.

As recent as 2010, breakthrough discoveries have been made linking Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, better known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” to brain trauma. More serious than concussions, ALS is known as “a one way train to death.” Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with the disease after setting a consecutive games record in Major League Baseball. Over his playing career, Gehrig was known his great endurance and for taking several pitches right to the head. As his playing career wound down, Gehrig’s years of tireless consistency and constant grinding finally caught up to him. At the age of 37, Gehrig died.  Unfortunately, ALS did not stop with Lou Gehrig and baseball. Steve Smith, a former captain of Penn State’s 1986 National Championship Team, has seen his life deteriorate due to ALS. As a fullback, Smith’s job was to create openings in the defense by colliding head first into his opponents. After 15 seasons away from the NFL, Smith can no longer eat, speak, or breathe, without the help of technology.  At only 46 years old, Smith’s is not expected to live to the age of 50 (Goldberg).

While there is little doubt that a removal of the facemask would help limit these debilitating head injuries in the NFL, Some fans argue that the game has changed too much over the past sixty years to go back to a facemask-less NFL. Experts claim that players have grown too accustomed to having the facemask for support that abruptly eradicating it from the league would cause the players to lose focus and to play with fear on the field.  With the newly implemented rule of 2008 which penalized any facemask-grabber 15 yards, it is clear that the league has already started to make a strong effort to have its players grow independent of the facemask. On average, less than one facemask penalty is called over the course of an NFL game meaning that players have grown accustomed to making tackles without the need to grab the opponents face (AP). Other fans argue that a removal of the facemask would spurn great high school athletes away from the NFL and on to other less dangerous sports. If this were true, superstars of the NFL in the 1950’s and 1960’s would have switched sports in high school before the facemask was introduced. NFL legends such as Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, and Gale Sayers played football in high school and didn’t switch sports out of fear of a facemask-less NFL. Lastly, critics say that a league without facemasks would greatly reduce the longevity of the player’s careers. In fact, as proven based on studies of the playing careers of NFL players, the average career expectancy of a starting NFL running back has actually been reduced from 3.7 seasons during the 1950’s to 2.6 seasons during the 2000’s (Raley). It is clear that the facemask does very little to promote the longevity of a player’s career. More important than the longevity of a playing career is the longevity of a life.

Possibly the most credible advocate for the removal of the facemask is Hall of Fame Player and Coach Mike Ditka. Ditka played in an NFL era without facemasks and coached in an NFL era with facemasks. The biggest disparity between the two eras of football is the constant question about star players being healthy enough to take the field in the new era (Hinton). Ditka only missed 10 games over his 11 year NFL career, a number that is unfathomable for any tight end in today’s game (Pro-Football-Reference). Although Ditka’s durability seems extraordinary for today’s standards, a starter playing every game was the norm in a facemask-less era. After Ditka’s playing career ended, the NFL made it illegal to play without a facemask.  As the facemask became a fixture in the NFL, Ditka witnessed a sharp increase in tackle related injuries around the league. While being able to play every game is now considered impossible, teams and franchises expected all of their players to stay healthy for an entire season. In today’s game, dynasties are so uncommon because nearly every team sees one of their best players go down each season.

The facemask has done more harm than good to the health of NFL players. Mohamed Massoquoi would never have received such a vicious tackle if James Harrison didn’t have a facemask to encourage him. James Harrison said it himself, “The NFL is hurt or get hurt” (Schefter). Without a facemask, it would be the hitters getting more of the ‘hurt’. While the NFL is an entertainment business, there is definitely a fine line between entertaining the fans with monster hits and putting the players’ well-being in jeopardy. When you look at the tragic stories of Dougherty, Turley, and Smith, it is obvious that football is not doing all it can to ensure full and healthy lives for its players. Until NFL rules change requirements on the facemask, players will be throwing themselves directly into uncontrolled harm every day of the season.  Anything the NFL can do to make the most violent sport in America safer should be implemented. The facemask needs to go.

Originally written in February of 2011

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