Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Were Early NFL Uniforms Safer Than What Is Worn Today?

Posted on January 22, 2014 by Martin Banks

Imagine a time in the history of American football when helmets were completely optional. That was the reality for early NFL football. In fact, helmets and face guards were not mandatory until 1943 — four years after they became mandatory for collegiate football. Even after the change, older players were allowed to play without a helmet. The last player to do so was Dick Plasman, whose career spanned from 1937 to 1947.

Looking back to a time when players preferred to play the game with no helmet whatsoever, it’s clear that such a policy would be unthinkable today. Odds are better of finding a nutritious meal at a local McDonald’s. Was this lax behavior due to ignorance about safety or was the game much different then? Were the NFL’s early uniforms so different that they actually made the game safer?

The Uniform Materials Of Yesteryear

Early American football uniforms were rather simplistic. Taking a look at vintage uniforms, much of the padding was reinforced with leather, at least what little padding there was. Early gridiron veterans resented all the padding. In their eyes, the focus on safety was making the game more “effeminate.” The mental image back then was similar to “A Christmas Story” where your mother didn’t let you out the door unless you were bundled up in layers to the point you couldn’t move.


Serious Injuries Changing The Game

The reality is that serious injuries related to the game have always been a major concern for the NFL. One of the most significant moments in NFL history involved a tackle by feared Oakland Raiders defensive player Jack “The Assassin” Tatum on Daryl Stingley of the New England Patriots. Stingley’s helmet hit Tatum’s shoulder pad in such a way that the awkward collision resulted in Stingley being paralyzed for the rest of his life. Incidents like this have always been a major contributing factor to the evolution of both the rules of the sport and the safety equipment that players must wear.

Even with all the changes that have been made throughout the NFL’s history, controversy remains. A group of about 4,000 former players recently sued the NFL because they believed that the organization was aware of the serious long-term effects of on-field injuries and weren’t doing enough. They said that the NFL glorified the violence associated with the sport.

Are Today’s Uniforms Less Safe Than Early Uniforms?

The totally biased and nostalgic thing to say would be that it would be unheard of seventy years ago for thousands of football players to sue the league over injuries or their families over death. Was this because the game was less dangerous when the rules and uniforms were simpler?

Not likely.

Sports technology takes far more into consideration now than in the distant past. And as past and current players push for change, the safety equipment and uniforms worn are made with the aim of protecting the players from hard hits and collisions.

There may seem to be a great deal more injuries and concerns of injuries today because of the increase in such things being taken more serious. Thinking that early uniforms were safer is naïve. There wasn’t the belief in focusing on safety that there is today. These are men who honestly believed that a focus on protecting players was “effeminate.” Now we know better, though the NFL is being told to do better.

Scott Huntington is a blogger, writer, and long-time sports fan. He lives in Pennsylvania and does research for Vendor Resource Management. You can also find him on Twitter @smhuntington.

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