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Recalling when the NFL made helmets mandatory

sidluckman Getty Images

Seventy-one years ago Monday, the NFL made two key rule changes.

One change, according to the league’s Record and Fact Book, was to allow teams to freely substitute players. However, the rule was repealed in 1946 and wasn’t brought back until 1949.

The second key regulation, according to the Record and Fact Book and the New York Times, was to make helmets compulsory for all players.

This rule, of course, has stuck. The materials have changed over the years, from leather to plastic to polycarbonate. And it’s probably safe to assume that today’s helmets will continue to be tweaked with the goal of best protecting the participants in a very physical sport.

The helmet didn’t just appear in pro football in 1943; various models were already available at the time. However, now players had to sport some headgear — and thus a rule that will never, ever go away was put into place.

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26 Responses to “Recalling when the NFL made helmets mandatory”
  1. sdcameron says: Apr 7, 2014 8:31 PM

    I bet people were complaining about the rule changes back then too.

  2. pongonfl says: Apr 7, 2014 8:40 PM

    And the next day, a coach coached someone to put a hat on a hat, and the guy didn’t do it and got fired and here we are today.
    Before helmets they never coached anyone to go hit the other guy in the head with your head.

  3. remyje says: Apr 7, 2014 8:47 PM

    Goodell is the devil!!!

  4. billygoat says: Apr 7, 2014 8:49 PM

    If you just listen to audio you would think today’s players were the ones who didn’t wear helmets.

  5. thehatefulnerd says: Apr 7, 2014 8:54 PM

    They couldn’t substitute players!?

    Did they have to check in with the refs or something?

  6. steelerdeathstar says: Apr 7, 2014 8:57 PM

    Maybe the NFL should go back to a more ‘stylish’ version of a leather helmet? But of course they won’t…

  7. beauregard says: Apr 7, 2014 9:15 PM

    Make them wear helmets? They’re trying to turn it into TOUCH football. Let ‘em play the game the way it was intended!

  8. supermanium says: Apr 7, 2014 9:25 PM

    Nerd: football was like baseball in that once a player left the game, he was done for the day. Players had to play defense, offense & special teams. Red Grange, the great running back was a defensive back as well. QBs were often place kickers and punters.
    Once you sat down, you were water boy, I suppose.

  9. seaeagle707 says: Apr 7, 2014 9:27 PM

    I remember the movies made during the 30’s and the “helmets”, that could barely be called that. They were a thin piece of leather with a strap at two bottom corners, much like a swimming cap. Of course the movie hero’s rarely if ever fastened the straps together. There’s probably more material in one football glove today, than in those “hair protectors” of days gone by.

  10. thehatefulnerd says: Apr 7, 2014 10:08 PM

    I knew they played both ways, but that substitution rule is whack.

  11. thegreatgabbert says: Apr 7, 2014 10:13 PM

    “Yessiree, sonny, I recall that like it were yesterday. Pa said it was goin to make the price of our cowhides go up, and the helmet makers would be beatin a path to our door….”.

  12. critter69 says: Apr 7, 2014 10:39 PM

    In the early 1970s, I had a roommate (a Cuban actually born in Cuba, thus a Latino!) in college who had one of the leather football ‘helmets’ (Tony wasn’t on the football team.) The helmet really didn’t do much to protect the player (except maybe to somewhat lessen the injury if a beer can was thrown).

  13. dontouchmyjunk says: Apr 7, 2014 10:40 PM

    Why is it that every photo of Jim Thorpe playing football in the 1920’s shows every player on the field wearing a helmet? Of course they were leather, but I didn’t see a single helmetless player in any photo.

  14. bigjayoakersonfan says: Apr 7, 2014 10:46 PM

    If the NFL were serious about the health of the players they’d fully authorize and fund an in-depth study to determine–as many have speculated–that the current equipment is inherently dangerous because guys feel damn near invincible when they wear it. And that instead of adding more and more layers of ‘protection’ the prudent thing to do might just be to radically scale back the equipment.

    Early studies have indicated that rugby–an incredibly combative and violent sport itself–has less overall injuries, and more importantly, less head injuries.

    Until the NFL explore all avenues as it relates to player safety, their efforts to ‘protect players’ is nothing more than legal posturing to beat back potential lawsuits.

  15. thegreatgabbert says: Apr 7, 2014 11:07 PM

    If you refused to wear a helmet in 1943 (for your own protection), you’d be kicked out of the league and drafted into the infantry.

  16. justintuckrule says: Apr 7, 2014 11:13 PM

    Never heard any of them having CTE either. Perhaps go back to those models or get rid of Them altogether

  17. catquick says: Apr 7, 2014 11:21 PM

    Soccer is more dangerous than football

  18. thestrategyexpert says: Apr 7, 2014 11:27 PM

    Maybe it is time for a very powerful and opportunistic Judge to make a stand and with financial demand. Or been there; done that.

  19. dudeicle says: Apr 8, 2014 1:29 AM

    Early studies have indicated that rugby–an incredibly combative and violent sport itself–has less overall injuries, and more importantly, less head injuries.
    ——————————————-
    Rugby players have to at least ‘attempt’ to wrap their arms around the opponent and can’t tackle above the shoulders. I’m guessing a blatant shoulder to knee is also frowned upon. Plus they don’t get blindsided as often; that’s probably the biggest cause of injury…. simply not seeing what’s coming

  20. bobman2 says: Apr 8, 2014 1:37 AM

    The controversial (but very readable) economist Steven Landsburg suggested in The Armchair Economist that if we replaced airbags with sharp spears aimed right at a driver’s heart, we’d stop 100% of all read-ending accidents on the road. While this may be true, what about the genuine accidents where somebody has to slam on the brakes and the guy behind him is a hair too close, or the road is slick–that first death would be Armageddon. Essentially the car manufacturer had it within their power to easily prevent that death, but did not.

    Same with reduced football gear–it is likely to cut down on a lot of self-inflicted injuries, but guys will push the envelope to get away with as much as they can, and if Player A is trying that, then Player B will need to compete, and eventually, one (or both) will end up on life support, and the lawsuits will rain down. In other words, human nature will lead guys to live on the edge to gain an advantage (and more money/glory), even at the risk of their lives. Also, once major safety measures are in place, even if it is possible that things will be safer without them, it’s probably impossible to go back.

  21. dcapettini says: Apr 8, 2014 3:38 AM

    Rugby doesn’t have more injuries because the players are smaller and slower. There aren’t any 300 lb rugby players. Also, because only laterals are permitted, there are no receiver injuries and no sacks.

  22. joetoronto says: Apr 8, 2014 4:21 AM

    And now it’s the helmets themselves that are causing so many injuries.

  23. macbull says: Apr 8, 2014 6:16 AM

    Today’s helmets are not much different than the helmets I wore in the late 60s and early 70s while playing HS and college ball…an assortment of foam padding and inflatable air bags positioned on the inside of a rock hard plastic shell.

    I remember watching Willie Lanier, KC Chiefs MLB, wear a helmet that looked different than the ones I wore…it had padding added to the outside of the helmet.

    The reason why Lanier wore that helmet is he nearly died after suffering a concussion in his rookie season with the Chiefs and in an effort to protect Lanier’s health and career, a KC trainer developed Lanier’s new helmet.

    The main difference in Lanier’s helmet…it had a 10 inch strip of padding added to the outside of the helmet, down the center, front to back.

    Lanier never missed another game due to a concussion. Lanier went on to play 10 more seasons on his way to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career.

    Did the NFL learn anything about helmet safety from Lanier’s experience during that 10 yr test period?…Nope, the NFL ignored Willie Lanier’s helmet results.

    In the late 80s and early 90s, two NFL players who had their careers threatened due to concussions decided to try a helmet add on…a device called the ProCap. It was simply a layer of foam rubber that attached to a players existing helmet.

    Mark Kelso, Bills safety and Steve Wallace, 49er OT, used a ProCap due to issues with concussion injuries that threatened their careers.

    Both players went on to play many years before retiring on their terms, when they were ready and not forced to retire early due to frequent concussions.

    Once again the NFL learned that adding padding to the outside of helmets helped to protect their players from concussions.

    Did the NFL learn anything from Kelso and Wallace’s helmet experiences?…NOPE.

    You can only add so much padding to the “inside” of a rock hard plastic shell. If the NFL wants a safer helmet that works to protect their players from concussions, try learning from the examples that have already been tried and proven to work in the NFL.

    The ProCap should be mandatory equipment for all football helmets, from PeeWee football to the Pros…

    …then study the results and see if the ProCap works.

  24. wwwmattcom says: Apr 8, 2014 7:26 AM

    My grandfather was the first on his team to wear a bar on his helmet after he broke his nose. He used to tell stories about how it was always grabbed and used to throw him
    to the ground. He was also made fun of for being a wuss.
    Times have changed.

  25. jimmyt says: Apr 8, 2014 7:38 AM

    I always get the feeling that when someone says “play the game the way it was intended”, they really have no idea of the rules or how the game was intended to be played, just their own version of both. I also think they would be happier watching pro-wrestling.

  26. bfrsd says: Apr 8, 2014 12:05 PM

    What the NFL needs to do is continue to improve the design of the helmet to reduce the force of the blow to the player wearing it and the player on the receiving end of it but most importantly completely remove the facemask.

    The improved technology of the helmet would directly reduce the impact and the removal of the facemask would teach players to fundamentally tackle better because they wouldn’t want to use their face and head as a missile anymore. The helmet needs to remain to reduce the risk of concussions and skull fractures but removing the facemask would solve a lot of problems. What guy wants to go bust up his face making a tackle?

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