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What is the football helmet? More than perhaps any other object in American sports, the football helmet is densely packed with contested meaning. It is the symbolic focal point for the fascination and love of millions of American sports fans, even as it has emerged as the site of trauma so great, it threatens to destroy the sport itself.
The plastic safety helmet, developed for use in American football by sporting goods manufacturer Riddell in 1939, is, fundamentally, merely a piece of protective equipment. Originally designed to prevent skull fractures–devastating injuries that resulted in multiple fatalities through the first 60 years of football history—the new helmet quickly became much more than a means of injury protection. Ensconced in the iconography of the game in a way that its leather predecessor never was, the plastic helmet has gained such prominence and profitability as a symbol of the game over the intervening 80-plus years that it is practically impossible to imagine the modern game of tackle football without it. Thus, while football history can be divided in any number of ways, it is perhaps most impactful to split it in two: before the plastic football helmet and after.
The 21st century news media’s discussion of the football helmet is, of course, dominated by consideration the equipment’s shortcomings as a purported safety device. In particular, in the wake of the much-publicized research of Dr. Bennett Omalu and Dr. Ann McKee (along with the rest of the members of the CTE Center at Boston University), this discussion has focused on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE), a brain disorder caused by the lifelong accumulation of concussive and subconcussive hits to the head. For while the rigid shell of the plastic safety helmet effectively protects the skull upon an on-field collision, it cannot prevent the brain’s impact against inside of the skull, and this has led to neurological injury and long term impairment among a undeniably large swath of current and former football players. Given the participation of millions of American children in tackle football activity–combined with the especially vulnerable state of their brains–it is no wonder that scholars like Kathleen Bachynski have come to consider the issue of safety surrounding head injuries and the American football helmet a “public health crisis.”
But the media’s focus on safety and injury regarding the football helmet and the heads it (fails to) protect misses something important about the football helmet in its selection: the allure of the object in and of itself. The semicircular domed space on the side of the plastic helmet has become, over the last 80 years, a canvas upon with the aesthetic identity of countless American communities has been established–be they high schools, universities, or cities with NFL teams. From the University of Michigan’s “winged” helmets to the Dallas Cowboys’ star-studded lids, from Florida State’s flying spear to the New England Patriots’ “Flying Elvis,” football helmet logos attract players, fans, and consumer dollars. They are also the primary icons of incredibly valuable brands, representing multi-billion dollar private clubs that carry the trappings of civic and regional pride, as well as massive public universities with tens of thousands of students, hundreds of thousands of alumni, and millions of fans.
So what are we to do with this fraught yet beloved object? Can we imagine football without it? This work-in-progress aims to explore that dilemma through a combination of historical inquiry, material object analysis, interviews with helmet collectors and former football players, and personal narrative. My hope is that, when finished, The Football Helmet will find a broad readership; it will be written with a popular audience in mind, while retaining the insights of sports studies scholarship. I look forward to gleaning important feedback from the other members of the Iowa Colloquium on Sport and Culture.
About the Speaker
NOAH COHAN is Assistant Director of American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. His research and teaching are oriented to the intersection of American sports, fan cultures, and narratives, particularly as they pertain to race and gender. Cohan’s book, We Average Unbeautiful Watchers: Fan Narratives and the Reading of American Sports, was published in 2019 by the University of Nebraska Press. He is the founding coordinator of the Sports Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association, co-convener of the AMCS program initiative in Sports and Society: Culture, Power, and Identity, and co-creator of Whereas Hoops, a multimedia work of scholarship and activism aimed at getting basketball hoops installed in St. Louis’s Forest Park.