Do helmets and pads make football players more prone to injuries?
UMKC physics professor Robert Riggs is a man of science, so naturally he has a few theories.
But not all are limited to the scientific world that many people try avoiding. In fact, one is about football.
Riggs believes there would be fewer serious injuries if players didn’t wear pads or helmets.
“As a retired Marine officer,” Riggs said, “I know that when you’re wearing body armor, sometimes you feel invincible and I think there’s some of that. They put on all those pads and they feel invincible.”
But wouldn’t football without the pads and helmets basically be rugby?
Well, that’s Riggs’ point. He says rugby is far less dangerous than football.
“I actually played football in high school back in the 70s and they taught us to tackle with our shoulders,” Riggs said. “The first thing you did before tackled anyone was you broke down on someone; in other words, you came to a stop and tackled them leading with your shoulder or a glancing blow with the head.
“Now they coach them to just fly using the head as a missile for the most part.”
Riggs didn’t have any empirical evidence to back up his claim, but a study done last year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine appears to confirm his theory.
The study found that collegiate rugby injury rates were lower than those reported by the NCAA Injury Surveillance System for football, but similar to rates reported for men’s and women’s soccer in 2005–06.
One of the authors of that study is Lyle Micheli, director of the Division of Sports Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. He said rule changes to rugby scrums have dramatically cut down on the number of spinal-cord injuries in that sport.
“Rugby does have injuries, but a lot of them are cuts and broken noses, that kind of thing,” Micheli said in a phone interview. “There’s no blocking in rugby. The actual amount of hard physical contact in rugby is less.
The major impact is occurring in the tackling situation. The scrums are kind of a controlled force, there’s no impact from them. One scrum is pushing against the other, so there’s not much injury. …
“In American football, probably every player is receiving impact-type contact.”
Micheli believes that football rules should be amended to allow for the ejection of players for a serious hit, particularly when the intent is to injure an opponent. He even advocates a red-card, yellow-card system that is used in soccer.
And like Riggs, Micheli believes poor technique is to blame for many of the serious football injuries.
“There’s a ballistic aspect to it. Even at the pro level, you see these defenders who sometimes hit like a projectile,” said Micheli, who is also Associate Clinical Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “They won’t even put their arms out to tackle the guy. They’ll bang them with their heads. They lack good, basic football principles."