November 26, 2023
The scientists are understandably frustrated: Despite their continually updating the evidence demonstrating that the modern plastic safety helmet cannot prevent devastating head injuries in tackle football, the games go on. Just this month in a piece published at Ars Technica, James M. Smoliga, a professor in the department of rehabilitation sciences at Tufts University, pointed out all the flaws in the NFL’s reporting surrounding concussion prevention. Smoliga’s piece includes a section on the use of soft-shell “Guardian Caps” in preseason practices, which is now mandated league-wide. These lumpy accessories, which accentuate the size of the helmet and make the players look a bit like the Great Gazoo, have, per the NFL’s home-cooked statistics (the object of Smoliga’s scrutiny), reduced the preseason concussion rate by 52 percent.
Every year, the news is full of highly touted advances from helmet manufacturers and images of futuristic-looking new helmets like Riddell’s “Axiom” model. Helmet innovation is an odd subtheme in the coverage of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. NFL and college teams have never seriously considered using the awkward-looking Guardian Caps in the regular season. And scientists, for their part, aren’t convinced that even full adoption across the NFL would make a meaningful difference. Some compare the idea of better helmets to safer cigarettes. As CTE researcher Lee Goldstein told the New York Times in a piece about the NFL’s quest for helmet innovation in 2021: “It’s smoother and it might not give you a hacking cough. But you still get lung cancer.”
Medical researchers have used popular media to raise awareness about what medical historian Kathleen Bachynski has dubbed a “public health crisis” that stretches throughout football’s history, but such outreach has increased in frequency and intensity in recent years. And public opinion polling suggests that their efforts, especially since Dr. Bennet Omalu’s famous 2002 diagnosis of CTE in the brain of Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster, have been successful: Most Americans now consider football unsafe (even if they still watch the Super Bowl). Pieces like the New York Times’ latest heart-wrenching story about CTE in former athletes who died before the age of 30, many by suicide, are undoubtedly contributing to football’s declining youth participation rates.
But a sober discussion of the dangers of tackle football and the ineffectiveness of even the latest helmet models misses something important: the fundamental allure of the familiar object, as everyone who watches football in 2023 has always known it to look. To put it bluntly: For many—maybe even most—football fans, the helmet and the logo that it bears are more important than the brain underneath it.
The space on the side of the plastic helmet has become, over the last 80 years, a canvas upon which the defining symbols of countless American communities have been established—be they high schools, universities, or cities with NFL teams. As philosopher Erin Tarver puts it, “sports fandom … is a primary means of creating and reinforcing individual and community identities for Americans,” and the helmet logo is key to that project. From the University of Michigan’s “winged” helmets to the Dallas Cowboys’ star-studded lids, from Florida State’s flying spear to the New England Patriots’ “Flying Elvis,” football helmet designs attract players, fans, and consumer dollars. They are the primary icons of incredibly valuable brands, representing multibillion-dollar private clubs that carry the trappings of civic and regional pride, as well as massive public universities with tens of thousands of students, hundreds of thousands of alumni, and millions of fans.
It wasn’t always this way: From American football’s bareheaded 19th-century beginnings in the Ivy League to the leather-helmet era that spanned the first half of the 20th century, decoration and symbols largely weren’t part of the helmet equation. During the latter period, the look of the helmet was utilitarian: The strips of leather that the helmet was constructed from might be dyed different hues, but even that was relatively rare. A few schools experimented with a practical basis for differentiating helmets: giving different position groups different-colored helmets (especially eligible receivers) or assigning distinctive lids to team captains or to players who were being rewarded for previous on-field achievement. But most took the field with their helmets unadorned. From the stands of the cavernous new stadiums that began to dot the college football landscape in the 1920s, it was relatively difficult to see their helmets anyway.
The plastic safety helmet, developed by sporting-goods manufacturer John T. Riddell in 1939, initially followed a similarly utilitarian path: The center stripe that adorned early models, sometimes painted a different color from the rest of the shell, covered the seam where the two pieces of the helmet had been joined together. Eventually, however, college and pro teams discovered that the smooth space on the sides of the shell, just above the ear hole, provided an ideal space for adornment.
A particular leap forward came in the 1960s, when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle laid the groundwork for the league’s current status as an almost inescapable cultural behemoth by recognizing that an extremely profitable future lay in television. Though the Los Angeles Rams had featured their distinctive curling ram’s horns since wide receiver and college art major Fred Gehrke had painted them on the sides of his teammates’ leather lids in 1947, most teams did not have helmet logos when Rozelle inked the initial national TV deal in 1962.
There was an opportunity, Rozelle realized, to use the new zoomed-in perspective the television camera provided to sell the NFL, and he urged all the franchises in the then-14-team league to adopt helmet logos immediately. In relatively short order, they all did, with the exception of the Cleveland Browns, and a colorful tapestry of NFL helmetry was splashed across screens every week. Colleges and high schools soon followed, and before long the helmet was transformed into much more than a piece of safety equipment. Emblazoned with bright colors and sleek logos, contemporary helmets vibrantly represent an impossibly wide range of American communities, from New York to Northwestern University to your neighborhood. More than that, the football helmet is now the preeminent symbol of the game of itself.
Unlike baseball and basketball, which tend to be represented graphically via an avatar of the ball itself, and hockey, which can be represented by the stick or puck or both, football’s primary symbol is not the ball, but the helmet. The sets of football pregame shows are often festooned with helmets, usually arranged to signal that day’s biggest matchups. For many years, Monday Night Football’s distinctive opening credits culminated with the crashing together of computer-generated renderings of the participating teams’ helmets. Many NFL teams’ primary logos—including the Cleveland Browns, Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers, Los Angeles Rams, and Miami Dolphins—either currently or historically have included the rendering of a football helmet.
It is no wonder, then, that the football helmet is also exceptionally popular as a consumer object: From the game-used helmets of current and former players to the tiny “gumball” helmets long sold in vending machines, the football helmet is a ubiquitous collectible. The NFL and major college football teams know this, as evidenced by the numerous “alternate” and “throwback” helmets worn throughout each football season, evoking nostalgia and juicing merchandise sales. Though it is impossible to quantify, there is no doubt that collectible helmets of various sizes adorn far more dens, “man caves,” and living rooms than they do locker rooms across the United States. Fans don’t just love football, they love football helmets. They love them because football helmets are a fundamental connecting piece between the action of the game and the stories fans tell themselves about their identity. From remembering games watched with loved ones to imagining that the devastation of a natural disaster can be healed via championship victory, helmets and their logos are potent illustrations for the irresistible sports narratives Americans love to consume and personalize.
Hence the problem with the recent scientific discourse about safety and the football helmet. However insufficient modern helmets may be at protecting the brains of the players who wear them, they will not be displaced—or even radically transformed—so long as they remain core elements of the branding that makes football popular and profitable. Preventing head injury is an important objective of the plastic safety helmet, but it is not its primary purpose. Nor has it been, for a very long ti