Professional lunatic Glenn Beck has argued—based on this article in the Wall Street Journal—that football helmets are evil, because they make players reckless and, eventually, crippled. It's pains me to say so....but he has a point.
It's not really an new argument, but the theory is that the more safety measures you put in place for people, the more dangerous their behavior becomes. Seat belts, cigarette filters, condoms—the illusion of safety makes people do stupid things they might otherwise not. Take away that security and people become less risky, more responsible for their behavior and you actually create less harm.
Football helmets may be the one instance where this theory actually holds true. "Hard shell" football helmets are designed to protect the skull, but they also turn the head into a convenient weapon. Safeties launch themselves at unsuspecting wide receivers because they want to strike with the most forceful piece of equipment on their body. When a running back senses trouble coming, he ducks—exposing his neck to catastrophic injury and increasing the chance for a brain-rattling concussion. Players slap each other in the head, tug on facemasks, and headbutt goalposts to fire themselves up, because they know that if someone (or something) decides to hit back, they've got that nice big helmet to protect them.
(The same is true for boxing gloves. The soft padding doesn't hurt as much and faces don't get as mangled as they do by bare knuckles, but that just means your opponent can pummel your skull for 12 rounds instead of three.)
There's evidence that suggests Australian Football League players suffer fewer head injuries, despite the fact that they don't wear any padding at all. Their game is slower and slightly less violent than the NFL—dislocated shoulders and knees area actually more prevalent Down Under—but there are also fewer unconscious guys carted off the field on stretchers. That's because players learn to protect themselves, rather than hoping the equipment will do it for them. It's good old Republican self-reliance!
The NFL will never remove facemasks or ban helmets—they would have to redesign the entire uniform and half the rule book—but maybe players would be a bit better off if they did? This brutal hit Ryan Clark put on Willis McGahee is just one of thousands of similar plays that doesn't happen if players aren't wearing helmets. All that padding is well-intentioned, but it doesn't make the game less dangerous.