Bob Ford: Might be time to get rid of face masks

No face masks here: Eagles (from left) Sonny Jurgensen, Pete Retzlaff, Timmy Brown, and Tommy McDonald, in 1963. Some believe football was safer before the advent of face masks.
No face masks here: Eagles (from left) Sonny Jurgensen, Pete Retzlaff, Timmy Brown, and Tommy McDonald, in 1963. Some believe football was safer before the advent of face masks.
Posted: November 11, 2010

It was a great shock to learn not long ago that no one watches television on television any longer. I have become accustomed to falling behind on receiving such information and only recently figured out the whole problem regarding the TV antenna, but this one was a surprise.

People - and by people I mean young men in the coveted 21-to-35 demographic that has no money but is nevertheless willing to spend it - watch television on their computers and on their phones and on the tablet devices that are becoming the digital equivalent of man purses. Some of these people even see a whole lot of television without the bother of owning one. Imagine that.

So, I felt very au courant viewing a Bryant Gumbel commentary on the computer the other day. It originally was telecast on HBO's Real Sports show, and the computer was the only place I was going to see that puppy, because I'm a little parsimonious when it comes to the old Comcast bill. If Ed Snider's going to give someone like Andre Iguodala another contract extension, he's not going to do it with my $13.95 a month.

Gumbel was talking about the safety issue in football - physical, not free or strong - and what could be done to cut down on concussions and helmet-to-helmet hits and all those things that have made the game such a fun sport to follow lately.

I get e-mails from readers who are getting tired of this stuff. "Why don't you guys get back to telling us about the games and stop going on and on about the concussions we don't care about?" Politely as possible, the response is that we will do so as soon as they stop carrying unconscious men off the field on stretchers every five minutes or so.

Gumbel had an idea, although he did admit to borrowing it from George Preston Marshall, the founder of the Washington Redskins and an influential owner when he wasn't busy trying to keep African Americans out of the league. Gumbel suggested the NFL look into removing face masks from the helmets to promote safer play.

"It's better for guys to lose a few teeth than the memory of ever playing the game at all," Gumbel said.

His contention was that players would not tackle by leading with their helmets if that meant getting their noses smeared across their faces like Silly Putty. The same argument has been made in hockey, that it was a safer game before helmets and face shields because players knew not to bring their sticks up to an opponent's face, lest it happen to one's own face during the next shift. Bob Clarke will tell you it was a cleaner game before helmets, too, but that really applied only to when he wasn't on the ice.

According to Gumbel, Marshall wanted to ban face masks in the 1950s when they were first being used, arguing that they would cause more injuries than they would prevent. Maybe so. Marshall had some good ideas, like expanding the forward-pass rule, that he sprinkled among the bad ones, like not hiring a minority player until the secretary of the interior threatened to revoke his D.C. Stadium lease. In fact, he had so many good ideas he was elected to the Hall of Fame just one year after Bobby Mitchell became the first Redskin with black skin in 1962. (It was kind of a sympathy vote because Marshall suffered a stroke not long after enduring the sight of Mitchell in burgundy and gold. Coincidence or not? You decide.)

But as far as banning the face mask, Marshall might have had something there. Would defenders find another way to tackle if they didn't have that protection? In the distant past, even before there was television not to watch television on, football players were instructed to tackle low and wrap up the ballcarrier's legs like those of a calf being roped by a lariat. That probably would still work, except in the case of quarterbacks, whose knees are, by rule, more valuable, or in the case of tackles being attempted by Asante Samuel.

What football might consider is its version of the baseball strike zone. Tackles may be initiated only between the armpits and the thighs. Anything above or below that and the ballcarrier gets first base.

Or, better yet, ban face masks only for defensive players. The offense can keep wearing them. That would put some spirit into the line play. I'm still working on what to do in the event of a turnover, when the offensive players become the tacklers. The officials may have to make everyone freeze and change helmets and then restart the play, just like throwing the switch on the old vibrating table game.

The concept of getting rid of the masks is sound, however, because nobody likes pain. It would be interesting to see a study comparing the incidence of concussions between helmeted football players and helmetless rugby players. Does the obvious vulnerability keep rugby players from incurring as many concussions, or is it just too hard to tell the difference when they have them?

All good questions, and it's nice that Gumbel brought up the discussion on television, and even nicer that seeing it didn't require a television. Anything, apparently, is possible. If America can move past TVs, there's no reason the NFL can't break the face mask habit, too.


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read

his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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