Guardian Cap Era Begins for Hamilton Tigercats

Why the Ticats are wearing those giant helmets at practice

The Hamilton Spectator

May 19, 2023

At first glance, they look like a cluster of peculiar mushrooms, or funny, muscular bobbleheads, but the problem they’re trying to address is no joke.

This week, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats started wearing their Guardian Caps — soft, thick, shells which fit around the standard helmets — which are now mandatory pieces of safety equipment for all CFLers who play the positions at highest risk for concussions. They must be worn on the field during every practice in spring training and the regular season, but are not mandatory for games.

All offensive and defensive linemen, running backs and linebackers are required to wear the Guardians when on the field for contact practices, which means most on-field sessions all year, except for “walk-throughs” (completely noncontact tune-ups).

The caps were introduced into some American high school and college programs as early as 2010, and by last fall more than 200 major college teams were on board. Last summer, the NFL initiated a trial program for training camp only after results of an NFL study indicated that when one player involved in a collision is wearing the cap, the severity of impact was reduced by at least 10 per cent, and when both were wearing the caps, the reduction was 20 per cent or more.

Accordingly, this year the NFL made the Guardian Caps mandatory for all practices, pre-season or regular season, and the CFL, through its medical committee, has followed suit. The Ticats began wearing theirs on Wednesday.

All offensive and defensive linemen, running backs and linebackers must wear the extra padding around their helmets.

“We work regularly with the NFL medical committee and their statistics from last year’s training camp were significant in terms of the Guardian Caps reducing impact,” the CFL’s head of football Greg Dick told The Spectator. “It spreads the impact across the whole area.

“The positions mandated to wear the caps are the ones who hit their head more from potential contact. Receivers and defensive backs are hitting less, but they have the option to wear them if they want.”

Quarterbacks don’t have to wear them either. They’re already dressed in easy-to-see red jerseys during practice, and there has always been a complete hands-off rule about any contact with a pivot.

An informal Spectator survey of more than a dozen Ticats players this week found a general welcoming, or at least acceptance, of the new Guardian Caps.

“It’s the first time I’ve worn it and it’s been good so far,” said defensive tackle Casey Sayles. “ I can definitely understand the concept of not getting banged around in practice. It’s the repeated little blows which can add up. I think there’s a lot of science going into it.”

Multiple-time all-star offensive guard Brandon Revenberg agreed: “There’s a little extra weight on the noggin, but not too much. It’s got a little extra bounce. They are trying to keep us as healthy as they can.”

Veteran offensive tackle Chris Van Zeyl, the team’s influential union rep, said he and the CFL Players Association are in favour of the extra padding and any measures which increase player protection.

Head coach Orlondo Steinauer said that he’s all for anything that’s about player safety. He suspects it will take a little time for players to adjust to the padding and, like many others, he noticed that it’s been a little quieter during team-on-team drills since the caps were added.

That lack of noise may offer, in itself, anecdotal evidence that there is always lot more contact to the helmet than outsiders realize.

But reviews of the Guardian Caps are not universally positive nor optimistic. Last August, Chris Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation in the U.S., raised concerns that the helmet add-ons don’t offer equal protection across all types of impacts. He also said “adding weight to a helmet can make things worse for the brain.”

Some critics have also theorized the extra weight (half a pound) might affect balance. That does occur in other sports: despite performing some of the most precarious moves in all sports, most elite figure skaters don’t wear protective helmets in practice because even a marginal difference in height and weight can dangerously affect their balance and co-ordination.

Indeed, a couple of Ticats who aren’t fond of the caps said that the weight and a change in balance were two of their concerns.

Concussions and their lingering effects on the brain have long been a contentious issue in heavy-physical-impact sports like football and hockey. For a number of reasons, professional leagues in both sports were slow to come around to either acknowledging or addressing hits to the head.

“Collision Course,” an innovative, landmark four-part series in 2017 by award-winning Spectator reporter Steve Buist examined a myriad of disturbing concerns about football’s potential after-effects on the human brain.

It’s gradually become understood that long-term health issues can arise from not only obvious, traumatic blows to the head but repeated “micro-concussions” that occur, often unnoticed, during the kind of intentional and unintentional repetitive collisions in the close quarters of football’s trenches. That is why the CFL and NFL chose the positions it did for mandatory use of the protective caps.

In this week’s announcement of a number of ongoing safety-issue initiatives, including the Guardian Caps, the CFL said it is involved with seven different Canadian universities on several studies involving safety, health, equipment and performance enhancement.

Ticat receiver Papi White knows exactly where he stands. On Thursday morning, his feet became tangled with a pass defender, and White was pitched to the ground, the back of his head forcefully hitting the turf. But because he sometimes lines up inside the tackles, he was wearing the new protection.

“I hit hard and I didn’t really feel it,” White said. “It was only the second day, and right there, I became an instant believer in the Guardian Cap.”

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