Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Evolution of Violence in Sports

mgz24's picture

 The Evolution of Violence in Sports

The current debate in women’s lacrosse is whether or not to introduce helmets to the game.  The argument for helmets is that they would provide another layer of protection against concussions and other head traumas.  The counter argument is that introducing helmets would push the game to change, and move it towards a more physical game.  A similar transition can be seen in football with the introduction of newer, more protective helmets. 

In the early days of football, helmets were soft, made of leather, and had no facial protection.  Compare that to the modern day helmet, which has evolved into a hard plastic shell with padding on the inside and a large facemask.  While there is a clear difference in the protection that the two helmets provide, the latter still does not make the player invincible.  That sense of invincibility, however, is what the game has evolved into.  As players feel that they have more protection (whether or not they actually do is inconsequential) they are willing to take more risk because they feel that they aren’t in danger.  This has led to full speed collisions where players are launching themselves head first into oncoming players.  This increase in dangerous head to head collisions even led to changes in rules and fines during the 2010 National Football League season.  Although we can’t know for sure what started influencing these more dangerous hits, some people in football have started to “wonder whether big facemasks encouraged a recklessness that can lead to long term brain damage” (Schwarz, Lacrosse).

The evolution of the modern helmet, and the recent rule changes that it has led to are not, however, the first evolution of the game.  There is a precedent for trying to push the game to evolve into something safer.  In 1910, there was an overhaul of the rules to eliminate the types of plays that led to 26 deaths in 1909, 13 in 1908, and 18 in 1905 (Buford).  The new rules “banned pushing and pulling, and the flying, or diving, tackle…. Required seven men of the line of scrimmage…. [Reinstated] the forward pass” (Buford).  This means that the more recent evolution is really more of devolution.  The game has evolved from violent to less violent back to more violent, and now there is movement to drive the game to evolve back into a less violent version.  Looking only at the modern game, post the 1910 rule change, however, shows a clear patter of evolution.

The evolution of football can be thought of as having two driving forces.  One is that as time has gone on, players have gotten faster and stronger, which has increased the impact of collisions.  The second is that protective gear, and helmets in particular, have evolved.  Although protective padding has also evolved, there has been a bigger impact caused by helmets, because other protective padding varies by position and by player preference. 

Finding empirical data to show that football has evolved into a more dangerous game is the difficult part.  The piece of data that is easiest to point to would be concussion data.  That, however, doesn’t work as desired.  Theoretically, if football has evolved to a more physically dangerous game because of the evolution of helmets, there should be more players suffering concussions now than there were players suffering 50 years ago.  Unfortunately, this data does not exist because 50 years ago there was not sufficient information about concussions.  Only in recent years have concussions become an area of concern and research, and we still have more to learn about them. 

Although the pro-helmet camp in women’s lacrosse has good intentions, they are ignoring the evolution that will come with helmets.  The main problem is the sense of safety and protection that helmets give, which leads to two changes in lacrosse.  Attacking players feel that they are more protected when they have helmets and are therefore willing to go into challenges more recklessly, and defenders become more haphazard in the use of their sticks around an opponents head. Princeton’s director of medicine services and chairwoman of the US Lacrosse safety committee says “that behavior can change when athletes feel more protected” (Schwarz, Lacrosse).  This is something that I can personally attest to.  Having played lacrosse both before and after goggles were introduced I have seen a noticeable difference.  Even with only goggles, which serve no protective purpose in terms of concussions, the game has become more physical. 

A large part of the argument that the anti-helmet camp makes in women’s lacrosse is that there should be a bigger emphasis on teaching proper technique, and that this will force the game to evolve to be less physical.  This is the opposite approach from adding helmets to the game.  Rather than allowing the game to be more physical and adding protection for safety, they want to make the game safer by taking away the physicality.  This is a valid argument in women’s lacrosse, because if the rules are followed to a “t”, lacrosse is a non-contact sport, and so teaching and focusing on proper technique would lead to a much safer game. If players know how to use body positioning while defending rather than physical contact the game becomes safer; helmets don’t promote safer technique, but rather promote more physicality because players won’t be as worried about injuring an opponent.  The same argument has also been extended to football.  In modern day football technique has, to a certain extent, been thrown out the window.  It’s thought that protective gear provides enough protection to combat the potential danger of bad technique, so players will, for example, go into a tackle leading with their head, which is a recipe for broken necks and possible paralysis.  Proper technique can then be seen as the next driving force that will lead to the evolution towards a safer game.

The idea of teaching proper technique is also being combined with the next modification to helmets, which is “accelerometers inside players’ helmets [that] capture the force and location of every impact to their heads” (Schwarz, Football).  This technology is known as the Head Impact Telemetry (HIT) system.  The data collected by the HIT system is being used in different ways.  At the University of North Carolina (UNC) they are using the data to keep track of which players are using their heads to deliver hits, and then are using that information to teach proper technique to individual players (Schwarz, Football).  This technology can work as a driving force by teaching players proper technique.  As proper technique becomes the norm there will be fewer illegal and violent hits.

In looking at the changes that have already occurred in both women’s lacrosse and football there are very obvious driving forces that are setting the changes in motion.  This process can easily be paralleled to biological evolution.  The main driving force is the evolution of protective gear.  It now seems that there may be a reverse driving force that could set in motion evolution towards a safer game.  This new driving force is proper technique.  This is a relationship that can be paralleled to the relationship of genetic drift and natural selection, which are processes that can undo each other.  On a personal level, I can see the merits of both sides of the helmet argument.  That being said, I would place myself in the anti-helmet camp.  As can be seen in the clear case of football, a move towards more and better protective gear will lead to the evolution of the sport.  In terms of only safety in the short term I can see where introducing helmets would be the best solution.  However in the long run an emphasis on proper technique would be the most effective solution, not only in making the game safer for athletes, but also in maintaining the integrity of the sport.





Works Cited

Buford, Kate. “A History of Dealing with Football’s Dangers.” New York Times 20 Nov. 2010: n. pag. New York Times Reprints. Web. 14 Mar. 2011. <‌2010/‌11/‌21/‌sports/‌football/‌21thorpe.html?scp=1&sq=A%20History%20of%20Dealing%20with%20Football’s%20Dangers&st=cse>.

Schwarz, Alan. “A Case Against Helmets in Lacrosse.” New York Times 16 Feb. 2011: n. pag. New York Times Reprints. Web. 14 Mar. 2011. <‌2011/‌02/‌17/‌sports/‌17lacrosse.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=a%20case%20against%20helmets%20in%20lacrosse&st=cse>.

Schwarz, Alan. “Safer Football, Taught From Inside the Helmet.” New York Times 5 Nov. 2010: n. pag. New York Times Reprints. Web. 14 Mar. 2011. <‌2010/‌11/‌06/‌sports/‌ncaafootball/‌06helmets.html?scp=1&sq=safer%20football,%20taught%20from%20inside%20the%20helmet&st=cse>.