Maybe it’s time to ditch football helmets

Maybe it’s time to ditch football helmets

Retired basketball coach John Thatcher has long said when a boy is faced with the decision of playing football or playing basketball it is really no decision at all.

Basketball is the obvious choice, Thatcher says, because the girls can’t see your face when you play football. The helmet is blocking their view.

Of course, impressing girls isn’t the only reason boys play sports, but it definitely has to rank up toward the top.

But what if football players started playing without helmets? That could put a kink in Thatcher’s theory.

Really, if football is going to take concussions as seriously as it pretends to, then players playing with helmets just might be the way to go.

As it stands now, football at the highest level is just paying lip service about the seriousness of concussions, and that is just contemplating the matter as lower levels work hard and smart about brain injuries.

Take the case of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, for example. The NFL has long showed that it really doesn’t care about concussions — as long as the arms and legs still work.

How else could you explain letting a player take the field just one week after suffering a concussion?

When Palmer went down with a concussion in a loss to the Rams on Sunday, Oct. 2, however, the league took this absurdity to a whole new level.

Four days later, the Cardinals had a Thursday night game in San Francisco. As of Wednesday of that week, the Cardinals did not rule out the possibility of Palmer playing in that game.

Palmer didn’t play that night, but the team was clearly considering the possibility of a player playing in a game four days removed from a brain injury.

He would have been ruled out on Monday had Palmer suffered a pulled hamstring. But a brain injury? Ah, let’s see how it is tomorrow.

Butte doctor Nick DiGiovine, who has taken the lead on dealing with concussions at the local level, says concussions generally take a minimum of three weeks to heal.

More often than not, it takes longer than that.

When the NFL and its heads-up campaign pretends to be overly concerned about concussions and then routinely lets players return to action within a week of a concussion, it only makes the job of doctors and high school coaches much more difficult.

The NFL confuses the younger players and their parents, even as our local high school sports teams are more educated than ever on the topic.

Professional players have agents who push for their players to get back in the game before they could possibly be ready.

The players are highly motivated to get back quickly, too, because the NFL stands for “Not For Long” for players too often on the injury list — especially with an injury that doesn’t slow down their 40 time.

Perhaps almost as frustrating as watching the NFL pretend it cares about its players’ health is watching college football’s misguided approach to safety.

A few weeks ago when Montana Tech played Montana Western in Butte, we got a look at college football’s targeting rule when Western senior safety Skylar Roope was flagged and ejected for a hit on a Tech receiver.

After watching the replay on Tech’s giant scoreboard television and looking through the photos of a local photographer, I initially thought it was a bad call.

While Roope, who appeared to be trying to make a play on the ball, hit the receiver high, he actually turned to avoid a helmet-to-helmet collision. It appeared that the hit was shoulder to shoulder.

Not that long ago, that would have been a hit that was celebrated. It would have been the kind of hit that led off SportsCenter. Now, we treat the player like a criminal.

After looking up the rule, it turns out the hit might have actually fallen under category of “targeting.” So, it might have been the right call.

Still, ejecting Roope from a game for a debatable call seems excessive, especially considering how precious few games each player has in his career. It’s like giving a guy three years in the slammer for driving 27 in a 25.

The problem is with the rule. It is easy to see why the official threw the flag on the Roope hit, but he shouldn’t have been booted from a game over a call made in a split second and without a review of film.

The safety should have gotten some due process before being sent to the shower in the opening minutes of one of the biggest games of his life.

The targeting rule also further illustrates that we really only care about the safety of skill players.

What about the linemen? They jump out of their three-point stances, lead with their heads and have nasty collisions on just about every play.

Really, if we’re going to punish defensive backs so excessively, perhaps we should start banning players from lining up in a three-point stance. Linemen brains matter, too.

The game of football has a serious public relations problem thanks raised public awareness about concussions, and that might be a bit unfair.

While football is clearly a dangerous sport, other sports aren’t far behind it when it comes to concussions. We focus on the so-called barbaric sport of football and forget that concussions are affecting our children at a high rate in other sports, too.

Football has had to make changes because moms aren’t pulling their kids off the baseball diamond and soccer fields out of fear for the safety of their child’s brain.

Some of those changes have been for the better. With others, the change is just make believe.

Montana Tech has been very smart about avoiding targeting calls under head coach Chuck Morrell. The team has focused on rugby-style tackling that is safer for the tackler and for the receivers.

It is also a more effective form of tackling than having defensive backs lead with their head and shoulders like they have been doing since the invention of the facemask. The rugby-style tackle is harder to break.

If rugby players can play their violent game without any pads, then football could go without helmets too. Better yet, perhaps pads should be eliminated in football altogether.

It might not make it a better game, and it might forever change the sport we have all known and loved for so long.

But losing helmets would get rid of 99 percent of targeting hits, and it would without question reduce the number of concussions.

Isn’t that the whole idea behind the other changes in the sport? Why cut concussions by 20 percent when we can cut them by 80?

Getting rid of helmets would also make Coach Thatcher change his pro-basketball argument because the girls would be able to see the football players’ pretty faces, too.

— Bill Foley, who played too many tackle football games without a helmet, writes a column that appears Tuesday on ButteSports.com. Email him at foley@buttesports.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.

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