The American Football helmet has gone through many transitions since the days of leather helmets.
First off was the “chin strap.” Originally a thin piece of leather to protect the chin from splitting once the player made contact with the ground, it also kept the helmet attached to the athlete’s head.
The “face mask” was invented by Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown when he was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. His All-Pro quarterback, Otto Graham, had sustained a severe slash on a savage hit while attempting to scramble. The result was 15 sutures stitched inside Graham’s mouth during halftime. For the second half, Coach Brown had the equipment manager install a makeshift one-inch thick clear plastic to the helmet to protect Graham’s mouth.
From this, Coach Brown wanted his star player to have permanent protection in that area and tinkered with a shield. His invention was the face mask. The original design was a two inch piece of plastic attached to the sides of Graham’s helmet that swung around in front in front of the mouth and jaw area. There were issues with this design as it was susceptible to cracking and was difficult to allow Graham to spit without getting his saliva all over the device.
At the conclusion of the 1953 season, Coach Brown visited the offices of Riddell Sports Group just outside of Chicago to discuss a permanent yet more substantial design. The engineers came up with a single bar made of hard rubber and plastic which possessed tensile strength.
Webbing was the design utilized inside a normal football helmet and now are an absolute marvel. Various degrees of padding create a cocoon for players in today’s football landscape in order to eliminate or reduce the number of concussions; plus various sensors are installed which log data on shock, force, plus the direction the force was derived.
Motorcycle riders were the first to apply the “face shield” to their helmets. This idea was later implemented onto the gridiron with American Football helmets. The sport calls their device a “visor” instead, but essentially does the same thing: protection for the face and eyes. This was an invention to assist tight end Mark Mullaney of the Minnesota Vikings heal from an eye injury in 1984.
Visors are made of polycarbonate which is a lighweight material and can be manufactured to have a curved design. Nike, Under Armour and Oakley are the brands most used. Last year, Oakley entered into a four-year contract with the NFL to become the official helmet visor provider with their new Prizm Lens Technology.
And now, along comes 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic. What should pro football players expect when they are body slamming each other? The NFL is not designed for social distancing.
The Oakley visors have been tested yet again and the results are that they do protect players to some degree. But that protection is only regulated to about half of a player’s face. Across the globe, people are wearing face masks to protect their own breath and spit from going airborne. How can football players do the same?
Oakley believes they have the answer. Enter the “mouth shield.”
The field of play is the concern among players. The mouth shield was an idea of the doctors and engineers from the NFL and the NFL Players Association, then sent to Oakley to devise a solution.
This new product is actually an extension of the Oakley visor. It has plastic sheets that extend down in front of the mouth area and attaches to the face mask. Built-in openings are constructed for air flow but are designed so that no mouth saliva can be emitted outwardly plus the direct exhaust of breath is deflected.
There are questions and concerns.
For one, football is a physical game so the ability to breath comfortably is paramount. Visibility is another question. And what about claustrophobia? Does this encumbered design make an athlete feel like he is all boxed in since he is already wearing a headgear designed to enclose most of the head? Yet another concern is air circulation because football is a major sweat-producing activity with the need to constantly wipe the face. Plus, can you spit from this thing?
Comfort, functionality and protection need to be at the top of the list for each player.
Part of the testing process by Oakley was to spray particles of fluid onto the mouth shield in an effort to replicate a player’s normal activity. The results were a high rate of success of blocked transmission of fluid.
Other manufacturers have produced similar contraptions including helmet maker Schutt which has their patented “splash shield.”
The whole point of a mouth shield or splash shield is to prevent the amount of airborne particles to spread during games which lead to a safer environment.
Currently, there aren’t any mandates from the league for players to wear the mouth shield nor the visor.