Why Protective Technology makes Sport more Dangerous – The Gloves are off

A considerable amount of technology goes into protective gear for sports, particularly when it comes to protecting the head. The general idea is to either spread the force of the impact over a large area, or to cushion some of the blow. Yet it seems that in recent times the number of serious head injuries is increasing. Is this simply a coincidence? Is it a function of the increased number of games being played at a high standard? Or is there a logical explanation as to why sports protection actually makes the game less safe? Thefullapple investigates.

American Football: The Swartz Experiment

Professor Erik Swartz, a former rugby player and hardcore American Football fan, observed that whilst tackling was a common feature across both sports, Rugby tacklers tended to go in with less force and more technique than their American counterparts leading to a lower probability of injury.

So why is American Football more dangerous? There are three obvious differences between the two sports. Firstly, American Football is blessed with arguably the most attractive cheerleaders on the planet. Secondly, Rugby is not.


Thirdly, (and most relevant), American footballers are equipped with big protective helmets as well as the mouthguards and shoulder pads available to any Rugby player. As a result, Professor Swartz hypothesised that the helmets in American Football were the reason for it being more dangerous.

Thus, he carried out a scientific study  to investigate the differences in performance both with and without a helmet. A squad of 50 college footballers were split in half and each randomly assigned to either a non-intervention ‘control’ group that trained as normal, or an intervention group that trained on a new regime of helmetless tackling sessions twice a week. In order to directly compare performance between the two, these neat little X-Patch impact sensors were placed on the heads of both groups to assess relative impacts through measuring a variety of elements. These in turn allowed the researchers to record frequency of head impacts above a certain severity threshold throughout each game.

These patches are tiny and stick onto the back of the user’s head with adhesive tape, so could be stuck down quickly prior to a match. In return, they allow us to measure quite a lot! To find out more about how these types of sensors can tell us about our movement, look out for our upcoming piece on wearable technology.

It was found that the group training without helmets had 28% fewer impacts per game on their head over the course of the season. That is astonishing.

Wait, you’re telling me that wearing a helmet could increase your chances of gaining a head impact?

Swartz went on to suggest that there are two reasons why this might be the case:

  1. The helmet provides a false sense of security for players
  2. It actually encourages players to use the helmet as a point of contact during play

Both of these reasons are explained through the risk compensation phenomenon, which is an observed scientific effect whereby subjects adjust their behaviour according to a perceived level of risk. If the risk is perceived lower because of wearing a helmet, then  players can start to tackle with brawn over brain as they perceive themselves to be safer than they would without wearing one.

The group that trained without helmets developed the correct tackling technique and so were less likely to suffer from a head impact during the game. Of course, it is not the helmet itself that is inherently dangerous but the way we use it. Players feel invincible in helmets, yet in reality they are not actually protected against a number of different scenarios, like a twisting of the neck.  This study gives quite a shocking result, strongly suggesting that excessive use of helmets actually increases the danger of head injury.

Source: The Daily Mail
Source: The Daily Mail

Cricket: The Bouncer

Enough American football. Let’s talk Cricket. Cricket is an inherently dangerous game. As a batsman, your job is to hit a 6oz rock that is being hurled at you from 22 yards at speeds of up to 101mph, and so it is not for the faint hearted. ‘Bouncers’ are particularly dangerous bowled balls that bounce up to a player’s head and neck height:

Source: Wikipedia Cricket Terms Glossary
Source: Wikipedia Cricket Terms Glossary

Like in American football, the risk compensation phenomenon can be observed as players have a sense of confidence that if they miss the ball, the helmet will protect them and so try to hit it rather than duck safely out of the way. A recent study concludes that significant (53%) head and neck injuries happen despite wearing helmets. These injuries include lacerations and fractures, with many of them resulting in a substantial if not permanent absence from cricket. Most recently, Australian batsman Phillip Hughes’ tragic death has got everyone reconsidering helmet safety.

Source: The Daily Mail
Source: The Daily Mail

Batsmen often overestimate the security afforded to them by the helmet; feeling ready to take on an aggressive bouncer but at the same time, leaving themselves more vulnerable to being hit.

Boxing: a much more aggressive example

Is protective technology present for the benefit of the spectators, or the boxers themselves? It may seem like boxing gloves are present to protect the fighter’s hand during a bout, but actually gloves and headgear in boxing make the sport more dangerous, and are present to make the sport easier to watch.

Audiences want to see action. This means repeated blows to the head and dramatic knockouts, but as little blood as possible. As a result, boxing is far more exciting but also more dangerous than other martial arts, such as karate (boxing’s smaller, less popular and wimpy sibling).

Gloves spread the impact of a blow. The same force applied over a larger area means the pressure of the impact is less. As a result, the recipient of a punch is less likely to suffer superficial damage, like knocked out teeth or even eye damage. However, gloves do not lessen the total force applied to the brain as it rattles inside the skull from a heavy blow. In fact, they make matters worse by adding 10oz to the weight of the fist.

A full-force punch to the head is comparable to being hit with a 12lb padded wooden mallet travelling at 20mph. It hurts. A lot. Gerald McClellan suffered around 40 headshots over the course of his world title fight against Nigel Benn in 1995 (pictured below). Even the most hardened spectators had to feel for the poor guy.

Source: boxingnewsonline,net
Source: boxingnewsonline.net

Neither fighter made any great attempts to defend himself. Instead, the two stood toe to toe, eye to eye, trading punches. As a result, McClellan suffered brain damage that left him blind, 80% deaf and paralysed.

But, in such an aggressive sport, just how effective can helmets be?

Boxing head protection (worn in the Olympics but not in professional boxing) has been shown to be ineffective in exactly the same way as American Football. The head gear gives the boxer a false sense of security that instigates an attacking frame of mind. As a result, defence is often compromised and in an experiment performed by AIBA, the concussion rate without helmets was (0.17% of 7,545 rounds) less than half of those with helmets (0.38% of 7,352 rounds). The jarring that results from the headgear being hit actually makes it difficult to see follow up punches coming.

Around 15 per cent of professional fighters suffer some form of permanent brain damage during their career. Globally, there have been over 400 boxing deaths in the last 50 years alone. Advancements in medical care saved the lives of fighters such as McClellan and Michael Watson, else that death toll could be far worse.

If the gloves were abolished, boxing would return to bare knuckles, blood and knocked out teeth – something that most audiences don’t want to see. We’ve rid ourselves of the blood and gore on television, but the damage on the inside is only made worse. Are wheelchairs and life-support machines any easier on your conscience?

Boxing gloves make the sport less bloody but also less safe where brain injuries are concerned.

So there you have it: The balance between protection and risk-taking means that sports equipment can sometimes cause more harm than good, as players feel safer initiating and sustaining more impacts and thus the risks taken are actually increased.

Hundreds of thousands of pounds are spent every year on improving helmet design for safety in many different sports but in some sports, could we save a whole lot of money and time by simply encouraging people to learn the right technique in the first place through not wearing a helmet at all? We’ve seen how protection in sports is not just physical, but relies on a mental interpretation of the risks involved during play.

No matter what level of sport you play, it’s worth remembering that in sports as in life, no form of protection is 100% effective.



Further reading:

Risk Compensation: A “Side Effect” of Sport Injury Prevention? Brent Hagel, PhD,* and Willem Meeuwisse, MD, PhD 

Boxing Headgear: Why Olympic boxers will no longer wear ridiculous and dangerous headgear


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