EVOLUTION; SAFETY FIRST
by Dr. Ken
Those who come to the HELMET HUT site have an appreciation, and in many cases, a true love for football helmets. The various shades of color, the shape of the shells, unique logos, and subtle changes in striping can garner attention and give hours of "viewing pleasure." Something not to be forgotten is that the helmet developed, and continues to evolve, because safety of the players remains the manufacturers' primary concern.
Early collegiate contests found the participants wearing their hair longer than current fashion, specifically to provide some protection to their heads. From approximately 1889 until the dominance of the Yale University team in 1895, most football players maintained long hair but the closely shorn Yale players established a short-hair trend that proves the adage that winners will always be copied. Before becoming "Admiral Reeves," founder of the Aircraft Squadron Battle Fleet Tactical Instruction protocols in 1928 and perhaps the most influential Naval Aviation Officer in history, Joseph M. Reeves was a Naval Academy football player who had suffered numerous concussions. Prior to the Army-Navy game of 1893, he enlisted the aid of a harness maker who made what is believed to be the first leather headgear for the sport.
Rutgers University is credited with the "invention" of the football helmet. An unnamed harness maker produced a leather cap and outfitted it with ear flaps, designating the Scarlet Knight team as being the first to don a helmet made specifically for protection while playing football. This 1896 innovation did not catch on immediately and head and face injuries continued to be commonplace, even for those who wore the Rutgers style leather helmet. The leather helmet became the standard for those who bothered to wear any type of head protection and in 1939; the NCAA mandated that all participants in collegiate games had to wear a protective head gear. At that point, the leather helmet was placed into widespread use although the professionals most often played bareheaded. In that same year, Gerry Morgan of Riddell Corporation developed the first plastic football helmet. I wasn't until 1943 that the professional National Football League ruled that all players had to wear protective headgear.
Face masks were not commonly used until the post World War II era. Prior to that, most players wore their broken noses and missing teeth as hard earned badges of honor. By 1950, the trend was changing with more and more young players choosing to wear protective masks. In 1954, the NFL ruled that the use of facemasks was mandatory although they "grandfathered" many current players. Who can forget Hall Of Fame Lion and Steeler quarterback Bobby Lane and Eagle and Patriot defensive lineman Jess Richardson charging around the fields of the early 1960s without a mask? They were revered and perhaps considered more crazy than tough by the new breed of player who had gone from thick Lucite one piece masks that snapped onto the helmet and literally clung to one's nose and mouth, to the Lucite single face bar, to the rubber coated metal one and two bar masks that became popular in the early 1960s. By the mid-sixties, one could characterize quarterbacks and some running and defensive backs as using a single bar, running backs, defensive backs and some linebackers utilizing the two bar model, and "the linemen" wearing some type of cage. The "bullring" was a popular addition with fullbacks and linebackers. Mask companies occasionally produced a modified type of mask for a player with a specific injury that needed protection but more often, the player had the team trainer and/or equipment manager bolt two different masks onto his helmet, or requested that they modify the mask themselves to meet his needs. While the masks did serve to reduce injuries to the face and mouth, it also provided an easy-to-grab handle that resulted in an increase in both the severity and frequency of neck injuries.
Helmet safety was not a hot topic of conversation prior to the 1960s. If you played and sustained and injury, it was considered to be "part of the game." Thus, from the onset of widespread helmet use in the 1940s until the mid-1970s, testing for helmet safety and durability remained somewhat primitive and unchanged. In 1975, a nineteen year old football player in Dade County, Florida suffered an on-field injury that left him a quadriplegic. He sued the helmet manufacturer and was awarded a settlement of 5.3 million dollars. He and his family later accepted an out of court settlement for 3 million dollars. At the time of this legal action, there were fourteen helmet manufacturers in the United States. Due directly to the litigation brought against the helmet industry, by 1990 this number had been reduced to five and today there are but three. In the years 1981 and '82 there was a total payout of 22 million dollars in judgments by the helmet manufacturers. As the gross income of all of the helmet manufacturers in the United States totaled 20 million dollars, the bankruptcy and/or decision to leave the industry by the majority of manufacturers is obvious.
In 1974 the annual cost of liability insurance for any particular helmet manufacturer was approximately $40,000.00 and this added fifty cents to the retail cost of each helmet. By 1979, a mere five years later, the average liability premium had skyrocketed to one million dollars while the "passed on" cost per helmet showed a commensurate rise to $16.50! Legal action against the helmet makers and out-of-control insurance costs had brought change to the industry. In 1982, the face of litigation again changed as the first lawsuits were brought not only against the helmet manufacturers, but now against the coaches and local school districts. The charge against the helmet producers was obvious: my child/husband/father suffered a catastrophic injury because your helmet was defective and allowed an injury of such severity. The charge against the coaches? Your coaching techniques in concert with the defective helmet either caused or did not prevent the traumatic, catastrophic injury. The local school districts in the case of high school injury or the universities where a collegiate player had been injured, were liable because they allowed an employee to teach these unsafe procedures.
The result has been tremendous change in the football helmet industry and in the rules of the game. Changes have affected and altered design procedures, manufacturing procedures, testing procedures, and coaching procedures. Our next installment will examine a number of these changes and how it has produced the next step in helmet evolution.