Sean McDonnell, coach of the University of New Hampshire’s football team, thought Erik Swartz, a University professor of kinesiology, was crazy at first. But the two struck a fast rapport. Swartz had spent years on the sidelines of football games as an athletic trainer. He understood the sport inside and out. And he said he had an idea that could make players safer and perhaps save a game that, besieged by research linking brain damage and concussions, has reached its most perilous moment in decades. To decrease the risk of concussive injuries, Swartz told the coach, remove players’ greatest protection. Take away helmets.
The idea has roots in years of scientific research, even in the mythology of football itself. Called risk compensation or risk homeostasis, it’s a theory that holds that protections can actually increase reckless behavior. Every day, people arrive at hundreds of decisions — whether consciously or not — based on perceptions of risk. Those decisions govern action. The helmet, Swartz realized, had convinced players they were safer than they were. He thought the simple act of removing the helmet during training drills could train players to tackle with greater caution.
The results of a season-long study, published last month in the Journal of Athletic Training, found that players who had participated in the no helmet training experienced 28 percent fewer head impacts at the end of the season than they did at the beginning. It taught “not using the helmet as a weapon,” McDonnell said. “What’s happened is that the helmet is so well designed that kids feel like they wouldn’t get hurt no matter what.”