I'll be honest: I'm not a fan of the NFL. I watch if there's nothing else on, but I don't follow it, I don't have a team, and I certainly will watch something else if I find something that piques my interest. However, I do read one NFL-related article every week in Gregg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback on ESPN.com. Mr. Easterbrook is an intelligent man as far as I can tell through his writing, and he routinely makes great points and has amazing insights into a lot of topics. He has been beating the drum pretty loudly over the last few weeks about concussions in football and how to minimize the number of players who receive them. This week's article, however, drew me in thanks to his look at hockey's improvements in helmet technology.
Here is the section where Mr. Easterbrook discusses the history of the helmet in hockey and how the NFL should look at becoming a leader instead of being a follower when it comes to player safety.
Concussion Watch: TMQ often expresses dismay about the slow pace of progress in football helmet (and chipstrap and mouthguard) safety. One reason given by the NFL for not mandating advanced helmets is the desire to avoid requiring players who like their current helmets to change. Why not, readers have asked, grandfather current players and require advanced helmets for everyone entering the NFL?Much like the National Federation of High Schools is setting the standard on protecting the head, it seems as though the lower ranks in hockey are also the leaders when it comes to player safety. The OHL outlaws all contact with the head, and mandates that visors and neck guards must be worn by every player. The AHL mandates that all players must wear visors. The NHL? As long as you have a bucket on your head, you can suit up.
Michael Porritt of Montreal writes, "In 1979, the NHL, where helmet use was once optional, mandated helmets for all new players. Current players were encouraged but could be grandfathered into going helmetless if they signed waivers. In 1997, Craig MacTavish became the last player to skate in the NHL sans helmet. Gradually the NHL has tightened standards for the helmets. The NHL could certainly do more about head shots in general, but the helmet issue has been much more openly discussed, while support for improved helmets is close to universal. You can't even go public skating in a city arena in Canada without a helmet now."
Head safety in ice hockey has improved -- and hockey is still plenty exciting. The NFL could accelerate progress on head safety, and football would remain plenty exciting.
Helmets aren't meant to prevent concussions in 100% of all situations. They are worn to protect the head from contact that could cause much worse damage had a player not been wearing one. Do they help prevent some concussions? Yes. Do they protect against all concussions? No. Do you know what does? No contact to players' heads!
Look, I'm not here to give anyone a sex education class, but if you want to NOT get pregnant, don't have sex. Abstinence is proven to prevent pregnancies 100% of the time. Pregnancy rates for people not having sex? Zero. It's science, I guess.
If you relate that to hockey, not hitting people in the head would eliminate the vast majority of concussions suffered. There will still be some - after all, you can't take hitting out of the game, and a jarring hit can cause a concussion. But the bets way to reduce the number of concussions by an exponential amount? Stop targeting the head of other players.
The suspensions handed out to James Wisniewski and Brad Boyes certainly are showing that Brendan Shanahan recognizes that the players are their own worst enemies. It's only the preseason, but two players have been suspended for throwing checks at another player's head. If there is one good thing about these suspensions, it's that Brendan Shanahan is finally drawing a line in the sand when it comes to these sorts of hits.
While the NHL will never mandate visors or completely outlaw hits to the head, the fact that Shanahan has stood up and said, "Enough is enough" gives me hope that the NHL will begin to move in the right direction when it comes to player safety. As Mr. Easterbrook stated, "Head safety in ice hockey has improved -- and hockey is still plenty exciting". I tend to agree with that statement, and the head-hunters are finally being punished for their high checks.
While concussions will never be fully eliminated in a contact sport such as hockey, there is one clear and concise manner in which they will: punish those who are targeting other players' heads. Brendan Shanahan has shown he's not afraid to throw the book at players who intentionally target the head of an opposing player, and that should make the game more entertaining as more skilled players will play the game without having fear of getting their bells rung.
If the NHL is not going to lead, the least they can do is match the OHL's stance on checks to the head. It appears that Brendan Shanahan is breaking that ground, and I commend him for it.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!