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redeyechicago.com

Modern helmets contribute to illusion of safety

They are better and safer but when used as weapons there can be harmful effects

Fred Mitchell

11:07 PM CDT, June 1, 2012

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The weapon of choice in the NFL is the helmet.

The safety-improved helmet, as well as other advanced protective equipment players wear today, can make them feel invincible and perhaps more reckless in blocking and tackling techniques.

"That's why we have to combine (better equipment) with rules changes, to take the head out of the game," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told me Thursday after a news conference at Soldier Field with Mayor Rahm Emanuel recognizing the stadium's LEED certification for being environmentally friendly.

"You want them to be protected, but you don't want them to use the head."

Mike Ditka has seen first-hand how the helmet has evolved into a more dangerous piece of equipment as a Hall of Fame tight end and Super Bowl-winning coach.

"I don't have an answer, but I know the helmet gives people no fear to strike with their head," Ditka said Wednesday night before accepting a Ring Lardner Award at the Union League Club for his work as an NFL analyst on ESPN.

"As a result, that's why people tackle with their head. Now the helmet I wore (in the '60s) was a little piece of plastic with foam rubber in it; it was nothing. I wasn't going to hit anybody with my head. You hit 'em with your forearm or your shoulder, you know. But not your head."

Bears President Ted Phillips does not subscribe to the theory players have become increasingly daring because of the improved equipment.

"Equipment is getting safer and manufacturers are always trying to improve," he said. "But players have to change the culture a little bit and how they tackle to prevent needless head injuries."

Ditka remains quite aware of how the violent nature of the sport appeals to millions of fans.

"You don't want to make it soccer, but the league is trying to do the right thing," Ditka said. "I applaud them. … They hold a guy out for one week (with a concussion) … I don't know if that's enough or not. I doubt that it's enough."

Many observers cite the hypocrisy of the sport that promotes player safety on one hand and yet markets to fans the sensation of watching bodies collide at high speeds.

"I really believe (players take more risks because of better equipment) and I don't think you can change it," Ditka said. "You have to protect them in every way you can but I know that's what happens.

"When you get guys the size of these guys (today), moving at the speed they move, and they collide, and they have no fear to strike with their heads first … something has to give. One of them is going to get hurt. … The repercussions are going to come later on for those individuals, believe me."

Though safer, modern helmets can be used improperly to inflict injury.

"People understand now (that) it's a dangerous sport," Ditka said. "There are a lot of repercussions for the guys who played the game 40, 50 years ago and they are having a lot of problems.

"And even the guys who played the game 10 or 20 years ago are having a lot of problems. I think the league is trying to do it right, but it's football. People have to remember, it's football. In football, people hit each other very hard."

fmitchell@tribune.com

Twitter @kicker34