The potentially devastating consequences of repeated head injuries in American football has become a point of public discussion following the recent release of the film “Concussion,” which hit theaters on Christmas Day. The film tells the story of how a young Nigerian forensic pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, discovered a progressive brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of a former NFL player, 50-year-old Mike Webster.
Since Omalu’s discovery, 150 cases of CTE have been identified, mostly in NFL players who experience symptoms including depression, memory loss, behavioral changes and sometimes early dementia.
Is practicing without helmets the answer?
A recent study of 50 NCAA Division 1 football players at the University of New Hampshire reveals that helmetless practice may reduce head injuries in football players.
The study suggests football players who are accustomed to wearing a helmet may feel a false sense of protection and be more inclined to lead with their heads when tackling. By removing helmets and pads, even for a brief time during practice, players may be more cognizant of the potential for head injury.
In the study, 50 NCAA Division 1 football players were divided into two groups. The first group did five-minute tackling drills without their helmets and shoulder pads as part of the Helmetless Tackling Training (HuTT) program twice a week during preseason practices and once a week during regular season. The other group of 25 players continued their usual training routine with non-contact drills.
Researchers placed head impact sensors on the skin and helmets of the players, which revealed that players doing the helmetless drills had 30 percent fewer head impacts per practice and game than the group that practiced with helmets.
Head impacts per practice or game fell from almost 14 in the preseason to 10 at the end of the season in the group of athletes practicing without helmets. At the end of the season, players in the comparison group still had more than 14 head impacts per game or practice.
According to the study, high school and college football players can each sustain more than 1,000 impacts in a season, while youth players may sustain 100 impacts in a season.
Swartz also pointed out, however, that Division 1 college football players are at an elite level and may be better able to make adjustments in their play, as opposed to other levels of play.
“Eventually what we hope is to develop a program on any level of play, high school, college or pro, of a practice technique without the helmet [in addition to doing drills with the equipment on],” he said.
The new study is not suggesting players go without helmets entirely. However, this new research and the HuTT program suggest that “practicing blocking and tackling without a helmet solidifies a technique which leaves the head out of contact,” according to the HuTT program website.
The HuTT program helps reduce sub-concussive and concussive head impacts and educates coaches and athletes on the mechanisms of catastrophic spine injuries, concussions and the dangers of head-down contact.
Modifying a player’s approach to tackling can not only alleviate head impacts that can cause injuries now, but can also reduce the risk of concussive impacts that can lead to long-term complications, such as CTE.
In a time when more and more parents are choosing to keep their kids on the sidelines rather than on the football field, “these helmetless drills could help make it safer to play football,” Swartz said.