Plastic Football Helmets and Other Safety Innovations

Football Player

Plastics play a role in virtually every element of football – from supporting player safety to bringing the level of play to new heights. Thanks to everyone who entered our contest to win $100 worth of tailgating supplies, including snack bowls, barbecue aprons, mitts and/or attire, from your favorite NFL or college football team!

The first weekend of NFL football is in the rearview mirror and the college football season has been in full swing longer than that. While the actual ball is made of leather (and not pigskin or a pig’s bladder as in days of yore), plastics play a huge role in the modern game.

For several decades, plastics have been the material of choice for innovations in trying to minimize football injuries. The NFL administration has become increasingly concerned about head injuries and is studying concussions in particular. There was a scary collision that left Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Stewart Bradley dazed and stumbling as he tried to walk off the field. Sure enough, Stewart, was diagnosed with a concussion.

How Plastic Football Helmets Help

Head protection has come a long way since 1866 when one of the first appearances of protective football headgear (earpieces held together with leather harness straps) occurred at Lafayette College. But the most significant advancements in helmet innovation didn’t come until the advent of new resin materials in the 1930s. In 1939, the first plastic helmet—stronger, lighter, and more durable than leather—was introduced by the Riddell Company and the leather helmet was obsolete within 10 years.

Today’s plastic football helmets are made from molded polycarbonate shells with foam padding (either polyurethane, polystyrene, polypropylene, or ethylene vinyl acetate) inside. As we blogged about last December, today football helmet companies are competing to come up with new plastic and foam engineering designs that will greatly reduce the number of concussions that occur in today’s game.

Other Plastic Safety Gear in Football

In addition, thermoformed plastic mouth guards can help protect the hard and soft tissues of the mouth from damage caused by traumatic blows and collisions. They are also designed to absorb the shock of impact to the head.

But plastics also play a role in the protective pads football players wear beneath their uniforms. Most shoulder pads consist of a shock absorbing foam material with a hard plastic outer shell. Hip and tailbone pads are made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and protect the hips, pelvis, and tailbone. Thigh and knee pads are made of plastics and inserted into pockets constructed inside the football pants. Football pants themselves are manufactured in nylon mesh or nylon and spandex for a tight fit for games.

Plastic Football Helmets are Only the Beginning

The front and back of football jerseys are usually nylon, with spandex side panels to keep it taut. The idea is to make it so tight that an opposing player has trouble grabbing hold of the jersey. Jerseys have a wide strip of Velcro (usually a combination of nylon and polyester) at the rear that connects with Velcro inside the waistband of the pants.

At a typical college or pro game, plastics are also used in multiple places on the field—from the kicking tee to the foam-padded down and distance markers on the sidelines and the bright colored pylons that mark the corners of the end zone.

And don’t forget the field itself. Many stadiums employ synthetic grass fields with individual blades made from plastics such as polyethylene, polypropylene and nylon that mimic the soft but sturdy texture of natural grass. Besides saving water resources and eliminating the need for fertilizer, most “artificial turf” is completely recyclable as well.

Reprinted with permission from, SPI’s business blog.