Commentary: Keeping NFL Heads In The Game

Sep 22, 2017

Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, shown here wearing a Vicis Zero1 helmet, was so impressed with the new headgear that he invested in the company that makes it.
Credit Vicis

The Kansas City Chiefs are off to a championship-caliber start. But their prospects, and the future of football itself, may depend on whether the game can be made safer — for players to play, and for fans to watch with a clear conscience. Commentator Victor Wishna elaborates in the September edition of “A Fan’s Notes.”

Hey, don’t look now — and it’s only been two games — but the Chiefs are Super Bowl favorites.

It’s been an especially strong start for quarterback Alex Smith, who followed a high-octane opener, in which he outdueled Tom Brady and set his highest QB rating as a Chief, with a gritty, grind-it-out victory against the Philadelphia Eagles. Backed by a revitalized defense and early-season Rookie of the Year Kareem Hunt, Smith should be at the top of his game. As commentator Charles Davis noted during Sunday’s win, “Right now, there is not a single quarterback in this league that is more confident than Alex Smith.”

But if you think he’s got a big head, well, that’s just his helmet.

As this promising season gets underway, there is another reason for hope: Smith is among a handful of NFL players to don new headgear specifically designed to reduce the risk of concussions. The Vicis Zero1 features technology similar to that in a car’s bumper — a flexible outer shell and an underlying layer of columns intended to mitigate collisions from multiple angles.

At a mere $1,500 a piece, the custom-fit helmet ranked first out of dozens tested in a joint project of the NFL and the NFL Players Association. Several Chiefs tried it out in training camp, and, apparently, Smith was so impressed he became an investor. That’s right: He liked the helmet so much, he bought part of the company.

Football helmets haven’t really changed much since the 1970s, and they’re pretty good at, say, preventing skull fractures. But it’s no secret now that concussions are the scourge threatening players’ long-term health and the future of the game. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 99 percent of deceased NFL players examined were diagnosed with CTE — chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative brain disease resulting from repeated head trauma that’s been linked to ALS.

Obviously, innovations like the Zero1 helmet are critical to the safety of players. But, selfishly, I’m hoping they can also go a long way toward protecting the minds of fans like me from the cognitive dissonance that arrives with each beautiful and brutal season. There are always players who, informed of every risk, will choose the promise of fame and fortune, even in the face of possible paralysis. But what of those of us who — risking absolutely nothing — decide to celebrate and subsidize that perilous proposition? 

Last month, ESPN college-football broadcaster Ed Cunningham abruptly quit because, “I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain. I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot.”

It was as clear a signal as any that football is at a crossroads. If the game can’t be made safe, or at least safer, it will be too hard to watch, too hard to justify. 

This new high-tech helmet is a first step, one of what the NFL and its $100-million concussion initiative promise will be many. Other changes may come. Perhaps the NFL will follow the Canadian Football League, which just announced a moratorium on contact drills during practices between games to reduce hits and allow more time for healing.

So for now, we cling to the idea that new technology could save the day, and assuage our guilt.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of games left — more or less an entire season — but these Chiefs seem more ready than any in recent memory to make a run to a championship, or at least their first title game since Joe Montana lead them to one 24 years ago in Buffalo, where he got knocked out with a concussion before halftime.

So here’s hoping Smith and the Chiefs go all the way — because the heart wants what it wants, and we all must keep our head in the game.

Victor Wishna is a writer, editor and sports fan. He lives in Leawood.