Current, former players suggest doing away with football helmets

One of the heightened worries as part of concussion awareness is keeping players from using their helmet as a weapon. The NFL has tried to crack down on that style of play through fines and suspensions.

But former wide receiver Hines Ward and Patriots safety Nate Ebner said the answer to keeping players from abusing their helmets is do away with helmets. The Boston Globe examined the debate over removing helmets from pro football in order make the game safer.

Former Steelers receiver Hines Ward, one of the NFL's most physical receivers over the last two decades, actually advocated for this last December.

"If you want to prevent concussions, take the helmet off. Play old-school football with the leather helmets, no facemask," he said. "When you put a helmet on you're going to use it as a weapon, just like you use shoulder pads as a weapon."

As we see with players like [New England's Rob] Gronkowski and Miami's Dustin Keller, who suffered an even more devastating knee injury in the preseason, the helmet can sometimes inflict a lot of damage.

Players don't wear helmets in rugby and Australian rules football, and those games can be just as physical.

"Everyone playing the game has an understanding that no one has a helmet on, so it's kind of a group effort to keep your head out of the contact area," said Patriots safety Nate Ebner, a former standout on the US junior national rugby team. "As a tackler you have to use your shoulders, your body, and you can't just dive in with your head."

Removing the helmet represents a seismic shift in how football is played, and the NFL likely won't consider it any time soon. Ebner himself thinks it's "crazy" to consider, and that he "couldn't imagine football without helmets."

Even respected concussion specialist Dr. Robert Cantu said the idea has merits. But Cantu added the merits don't outweigh the increased risks.

Of course, that's only part of the story. Concussions and devastating knee injuries may decrease without helmets, but incidental contact and the speed of the game would lead to far more catastrophic injuries -- hemorrhaging, skull fractures, and others that can lead to death. Cantu points out that the spacing in football players reaching full sprints on punts and kickoff plays, receivers and defensive backs reaching high-end speeds on passing plays -- makes it a much different sport than rugby.

"The sport just doesn't lend itself to playing without head protection the way rugby does," Cantu said. "You'd be trading leading with your head and blowing out knees and concussions, for much more serious injuries that I don't think people would accept."

-- Bill Bradley, contributing editor