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The Dangers of Protective Equipment in Sports

Protective gear in sports is critical to keeping athletes safe while out on the field. However, some of this same equipment, while essential for the sports in their current form, also contributed to the evolution that made these sports so dangerous. People wearing this protective equipment tend to feel capable of taking on much more damage than is healthy, and the results have been devastating for many participants.

Traumatic Brain Injury

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) can have devastating consequences on a person’s long-term health. Concussions are a type of TBI known as a mild TBI. While they have the word mild in their name, make no mistake, a concussion is a serious injury. For many years people did not put much stock into the dangers posed by concussions. 

However, in recent years a spotlight has been shown upon these types of injuries, and they are now being taken much more seriously.

Concussions are a common sports injury. Two of the sports in which these injuries pop up most frequently are football and boxing. It is quite shocking how lax the rules once were regarding concussions in sports. Considering that players would come off the field with severe confusion and an inability to answer simple questions, it is baffling that these injuries were not viewed as signs of an incredibly serious condition.

People took other injuries that showed clearer physical damage far more seriously than the mental trauma, which wasn’t something you could see with the naked eye. Most people treated concussions as a minor injury that could quickly be recovered from with no lasting damage. The truth is something else entirely.

The Role of Sports

Many of the concussions that are sustained on a yearly basis in the United States are sports-related. The numbers were once low, but as the use of protective equipment rose, so did the risk of concussion. The protective equipment is designed to help keep athletes safe, and in a way, it is successful. If you are wearing a football helmet and get struck in the head, you are much less likely to sustain an injury than if you weren’t wearing a helmet.

The problem comes more from the psychological side. When players are wearing helmets, they feel more protected. This can lead them into risky behavior, especially when everyone on the field is wearing one.

This feeling of invincibility often leads players into questionable moves. Players become more physical and hit harder when they have protective equipment. When it comes to boxing, fighting bare-knuckled is much safer overall than fighting with gloves. Because boxer’s hands are more protected when they are wearing gloves, they are able to hit their opponent much harder.

A boxer who is fighting bare-knuckled has to protect their hands. If they put all of their force into a punch thrown at their opponent’s head, they are likely to break some bones. This possibility tends to force most fighters to hold something back. With less force behind their punches, they are far less likely to cause a concussion in their opponent.

We all have an instinct for self-preservation wired into our beings. Protective equipment tricks people into thinking that they have created a safe environment for themselves, and that instinct takes a back seat. People are able to turn off their internal warning system when using this equipment, and doing so can put them in very real danger.

A Safer Way

In the past fifteen years, an emphasis on protecting athletes from TBIs has grown dramatically, along with awareness of the dangers these injuries pose. Concussions are closely monitored, both on an in-game basis and a cumulative record. Along with all of the other player stats that are tracked, incidents of concussion are something that a data scout in football looks at closely.

Suffering multiple concussions, even if they come over a long time period, can have a dramatic effect on an athlete’s health. An accumulation of TBIs can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a progressive brain disease that is often fatal. TBIs can also increase a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other brain disorders.

The NFL has made reducing the risk of concussion a priority in recent years. They have implemented several rule changes to try to protect the heads of players. They also have much stricter rules for when a player does sustain a concussion to make sure they treat it as best as possible.

However, more still needs to be done. Rule changes alone will only go so far in protecting players. Many players put safety concerns in a distant second behind winning when it comes to their style of gameplay. There are still many in the football community who feel that leading with the helmet is the best way to make a tackle. These players will continue to do so if that is what they are told by their coaches and what they believe.

The Seattle Seahawks have taken a different approach to tackling, ever since Pete Carroll took over as head coach. Carroll believes in rugby-style tackling, which involves leading with the shoulder. The results have been promising as the Seahawks have been one of the best-tackling football clubs of the last decade. Hopefully, the rest of the league will take up the practice.

If players and coaches can be shown that the most efficient way is also the safest way, they are much more likely to play in that fashion. There is a safer way forward in sports like football that simply requires a new look at how best to play the game.