XFL explores dropping the facemask

The XFL is toying with the idea that taking away the facemask will force a safer, if perhaps bloodier, style of play. Would it work? And would fans watch?

The XFL’s parent company, Alpha Entertainment, recently sent out a market research survey to evaluate potential ideas for the league. Wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer provided a summary of the contents in the May 13 edition of his subscription-only Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which in turn was synthesized by Deadspin’s David Bixenspan as part of a broader XFL update. Underlines are mine:

As promised, there are various ideas to speed up the game, which include no kickoffs, no timeouts, a 20-second play clock, the game clock only stopping for a change of possession, and fewer flags. One potential tagline for the league listed in the survey was “warp-speed football reinvented,” … No more facemasks on helmets, an innovation that the league’s brass believes will make tackles safer. … New, allegedly safer helmets … no extra point kicks, only plays similar to the two-point conversion … Cash prizes for fans who most accurately call the same plays as the players in an XFL app during games … Team fan clubs that get a special section at the home stadium, can vote on jersey designs and team awards, and have access to pre/post-game meet and greet events. … More official team/league sponsored events and vendor booths/trucks during tailgate parties.

It is hard for those of us who grew up playing and watching football with facemasks to imagine the game without it, but the NFL was in business for over three decades before use of the facemask became widespread in the mid-1950s. Football traces its history back to 1869, meaning that it has still spent more of its history without the facemask than with it.

The facemask was introduced for a very good reason: to prevent facial injuries like broken noses, jaws, and eye sockets. As facemasks became more ubiquitous and robust, those specific injuries have been virtually eliminated.

However, the technology carried unintended consequences. Free from the fear of broken bones, players adapted their play accordingly, resulting in the modern game that generally places the head and face at the point of impact for running, blocking, tackling.

Thanks to still-fledgling research into the long-term effects of repeated concussive and sub-concussive blows to the head, the wisdom of this trade-off has been thrown into question. The theory that the XFL is toying with is that removing the facemask will force players to protect their heads, resulting in a style of play that is safer, if also bloodier, on the whole.

Is there merit to this theory?

The existing evidence is mixed and certainly lacking. In that sense, the XFL would be doing a great service to the sport by putting the theory to the test.

First and foremost, taking off the facemask would not eliminate concussions or blows to the head. Although not an apples to apples comparison, the closest modern day comparison to this theoretical brand of football is rugby, which is undergoing its own concussion epidemic.

Further, the XFL player pool will surely be made up of players who learned to play the sport with facemasks. Part of changing that style of play will necessarily include learning the hard way through experience: making mistakes and absorbing dangerous hits to the now less-protected head.

On the other hand, the preliminary research work done on this issue is encouraging. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire found that having players on the school’s football team remove their helmets for just five minutes of post-practice tackling drills (twice a week during the preseason and once during the regular season) reduced the overall head impacts suffered by participating players by 28% throughout the season.

There are a host of caveats – controlled drills are not games or even full practices, and 28% fewer head impacts still leaves the other 72% – but for a sport desperate for positive health news and a league looking for an angle, it is worthwhile starting point.

Is there a market for football without facemasks?

With market research in hand, no one may be in a better position to answer this question than the XFL, as this would really be uncharted territory. We have seen leagues try to move a sport forward with innovation, but we have never seen one try to roll back a technology that has become such a fundamental part of the game. Regardless of the direction the XFL decides to go, it would be fascinating to learn what they have found.

There once was a market for football without facemasks, obviously. The NFL became king of the American sports world in the latter half of the 20th century, but football, especially the college, was plenty popular before the introduction of the facemask. A 1927 USC-Notre Dame game at Soldier Field is still the unofficial largest crowd in the sport’s history at 123,000, and the NFL steadily increased its attendance from its inception in 1920, finally breaking the 30,000 per game attendance mark by 1952.

That is all of little relevance now. Even in today’s world of remakes and nostalgia art, there are not many consumers left who remember football without facemasks. Few can even pretend to remember, as the NFL tends to present its history as beginning with the 1966 season that culminated in Super Bowl I.

One avenue available to the XFL might be presenting their product as a more authentic version of a sport that is slowly losing its soul. There is certainly no lack of anecdotal evidence that a sizable chunk of football fans resent the measures being introduced to make the game safer. It would certainly be an easy way to separate themselves from the Alliance of American Football, which is at the forefront of that particular movement by eliminating the kickoff.

While removing the facemask would also be a safety measure, it also carries significant safety risks, ones that fans will easily and viscerally be able to identify when noses start bursting open. For those who fear the game is facing an inevitable slide toward becoming flag football, that just might be a welcome sight.

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