by Keith Aksel
Rules governing uniforms in some sports affect how the game is played. Football is definitely one example. The standard under scrutiny in this piece is the NFL’s mandating of facemasks in the 1960s, which finalized the modern football uniform into what we generally identify as normal today. But, in doing so, the NFL turned the football player into a full-fledged zord (as in Power Rangers), losing a bit of humanity in the process. Players now look and act like bionic beings, and their padding makes the game less competitive.
Overall, the notion of the football helmet evolved over a long period of time. At the turn of the 20th century, players didn’t wear helmets at all, and the first widely used helmets were of the famous “leatherhead” style we see in old photos. Equipment outfitters then developed plastic helmets with new padding, like dense vinyl foam. The helmet we know and associate with the sport today didn’t become commonplace until the 1950s with the one-bar facemask (worn by stars like the Rams’ Norm van Brocklin) and wasn’t standard for all players until the early 1960s.
The aesthetics of football changed with the facemask. We grew to know many of our favorite players by their preferred face mask style. I still think of Corey Dillon in Cincinnati wearing the first facemask with four vertical bars that I had ever seen, and always associated that style with him.
The facemask, however, is only one part of the mass of padding that football players had heaped onto them over the past six or seven decades. My problem with the standardization of padding is that it leads players to move unnaturally in contact with one another, and players look more like mobile projectiles than human beings. The result is scenarios in which offensive players no longer have a fighting chance against defenders to break a tackle. For example, it has become a foregone conclusion that a pass over the middle of the field in the path of a defender will result in a devastating shoulders-lowered blow that jars the receiver, and makes breaking the tackle almost impossible given the severity of the hit. There’s no contest in these scenarios. With padding, defensive backs leave their inhibitions on the sidelines, and launch themselves at ball carriers like kamikaze pilots. Humans would not normally engage one another in this fashion, even in football. But, when it comes to modern football players with all that padding, we aren’t fully talking about “humans” anymore.
The facemask, combined with shoulder pads, hip pads, and the like, have turned football padding from a method of protection into a set of weapons to be used in attack. As former Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward noted a few years ago in an interview with radio host Dan Patrick, the equipment on football players today has been turned into full-fledged weaponry: “When you put a helmet on you’re going to use it as a weapon, just like you use shoulder pads as a weapon.”  In other words, padding insulates the player, desensitizing them to the world outside their pads. We see athletes then use the pads and helmets to gain advantage beyond what the human body would normally attempt. And it feels artificial. In the scenario with the over-the-middle pass, fans are thus robbed of a subtle contest between athletes who normally would have more of a give-and-take contest to complete the tackle. Instead, the tackle isn’t really a tackle - it’s a tomahawk missile (the defender) against a flapping goose (the receiver).
Let me show you what I mean. In this first video of the 1946 Army-Notre Dame “Game of the Century,” pay close attention to how the defensive back makes contact with the Army receiver, Doc Blanchard:
Skip to 50 seconds in to see the moment in question.
The contact was more measured. The DB never left his feet to torpedo Blanchard out of bounds, or cause a fumble as is commonplace today. Contact did not start with the helmet, or with some insane balls-to-the-wall rate of speed. Instead, the tackle seemed almost like a struggle in itself between the two athletes. Blanchard had a fighting chance to continue the play. Today’s DBs would simply use their mass of padding to soften an unrestrained catapulting of their target. The contact back then was more human.
Compare that clip to this hit on Denver’s Emmanuel Sanders during a 2014 game against the Rams:
Skip to 1:53 sec in to see the moment in question here.
The contact made by Rams’ DB Rodney McLeod was clearly less restrained. He lowered his shoulders and helmet, letting his mass of padding deal a blow that he ordinarily would never allow his body and head to dole out. There’s no struggle between athletes, just an explosive hit in which the receiver is laid bare. Was that McLeod’s doing? Or were the pads he was wearing handing out all the punishment?
My point in addressing this issue is not to clamor for reform and ask the league to take better care of its players. Rather, I’m suggesting that the general accumulation of pads and “protective” gear over the years has turned the sport into something very different from the way it looked in the old days. In a direct sense, the contact between players was more “human” in the days before the massive padding we see today, and the wild risky blows that players are willing to hand out today have everything to do with the distance they perceive lies between them and their opponent. Before all this padding, players clearly braced themselves when expecting impacts, and adjusted their bodies to avoid landing explosive hits, rather than embracing them as we see as the norm today.
For most fans, the old way the sport looked on field is like watching child’s play- players enduring and doling out larger hits is more exciting than watching Johnnie “Slim-Stick” Jones (that’s my made up name for the old timey players in the video) hand out markedly less hard-hitting blows in the 1940s and before. There was a measure of humanity lost in the accumulation of all these pads, punctuated by the addition of the face mask in the 1950s and 1960s. The addition of the face mask marked a final flourish on a full-on gladiator getup, turning the actual human into a modern-day knight desensitized to what their bodies should actually be permitted to handle, and making certain matchups on the field less competitive as a result. We no longer expect a receiver to continue a play once a defender closes. Defenders are expected to make mincemeat out of the ball carrier, using their padding to hand punishment out in a decisively unnatural way.
Maybe that’s a good thing to some, but I think that the athletes today would put on show stopping moves regardless of their garb. I would embrace any moves toward transitioning football from what amounts to a performance of 22 transformers on turf to something resembling a little more homo-sapiens, even if that meant losing some of that padding.
 I get some sources giving uncllcear dates that mandated the facemask for everyone. Seems like this source has a better handle: http://www.si.com/nfl/2012/09/21/nfl-facemasks
 Zords were like big robot suits and gave the Power Rangers more powers. Like guns.