Plastics Take the Lead in Sports Safety and Performance

Football players in helmets

Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.

Imagine a beautiful Friday night in autumn. From Bangor to Bakersfield, that means high school football: bleachers packed with proud parents and screaming students, the gridiron bathed in dazzling light, a colorful marching band playing the school fight song, and teenage boys knocking heads for a couple hours.

And, thankfully, lots and lots of plastics.

When you think about any modern sport, chances are pretty good that plastic gear is involved… gear that not only helps protect against impacts but also that helps drive athletic performance.

Take football, for example… from the top of the head to the tip of the toe, football players are armored in plastics:

  • A helmet with a tough outer shell and inner cushioning, plus a faceguard and maybe even a visor.
  • A mouth guard to help protect teeth.
  • Shoulder pads that now also often wrap around the chest.
  • Hip, thigh, and knee pads.
  • Cleats that are molded from many types of plastics.
  • And then the jersey, pants, socks, gloves – even athletic supporters – that today are made with plastics. There’s even a newish term to describe these fabrics: “performance” plastics.

And if it’s the NFL, chances are they’re playing on a plastic “grass” field, as well. (But apparently pro footballs are still made of leather.)

It didn’t use to be this way. Plastic sports gear has been around only for six or seven decades. Plastic football helmets, for example, were introduced in 1940 by the Riddell Company. (Previous helmets were made primarily of leather and quickly were replaced by these higher-performing materials). Professional, collegiate and amateur sports organizations today mandate the use of safety gear—and most of it is made with plastics.

Why the change from leather and other materials to plastics? Safety obviously was and is a big driver. Plastics’ properties enable all sorts of lightweight, cushioning options that contribute to safety—plus more diverse, cool and comfortable designs.

In fact, much of modern plastics sports gear actually evolved as the various sports evolved, as athletes pushed themselves harder and further, which increased the risk of injuries. For example, football of yore was a rough-and-tumble game but not the gladiator-like sport of today. Football safety gear continues to evolve as the players get bigger, the hits get harder and the football community focuses more intensely on preventing concussions.

Another example: Race car fatalities declined even as (paradoxically) the cars became faster with the introduction of lighter weight carbon fiber-reinforced plastic chasses that improve driver protection. In addition, risky (some say crazy) new sports have evolved as new technologies made possible by plastics were developed—can you imagine motocross racing at the X-Games without head-to-toe plastic safety gear?

To be fair, no gear can guarantee the safety of pro or amateur athletes. Columnist George Will has claimed that football as we know it will not survive, and author Malcolm Gladwell has argued that college football should be banned—precisely because sports safety gear cannot fully prevent head injuries. Regardless the validity of their argument, it’s clear that sports gear cannot take the place of reasonable sports rules and plain old common sense. Plastic and other safety gear is not a panacea that can prevent severe trauma. It is, however, an essential part of sports safety, from toddlers on trikes to 325-pound offensive guards.

But it’s arguably performance that is driving more innovations in modern sports gear.

  • Removing just a few ounces from a sprinter’s shoe decreases drag and weight in an event where every hundredth of a second counts (thus the switch from leather to plastics in most athletic shoes). The maker of Usain Bolt’s running shoes sells a Bolt-inspired shoe that weighs a mere 5.4 ounces, about as much as your average apple.
  • Tennis racquets have evolved from clunky laminated wood frames strung with catgut strings (made from sheep intestines) to high-tech carbon fiber-reinforced plastic frames with tough nylon, polyamide and other plastic strings that help enable the pros to deliver 150+ mile per hour serves.
  • Pro football jerseys usually are made from nylon or polyester with spandex side panels – the materials wick away sweat and hold the jersey tight to the skin, which makes it harder for opponents to grab hold. And strips of hook and loop fasteners (often Velcro®) keep the jersey tucked in, away from an opponent’s grasp.
  • Slick swimsuits reduce friction and drag to give swimmers a bit of an edge. Sometimes too much: swimsuits made with polyurethane foam provided so much of a competitive edge by reducing drag and improving buoyancy that the international community now disallows them, and the sports records set while wearing them bear an asterisk.

This duel focus on safety and performance at the professional level is also good news for amateur athletes such as those high school football players (and their parents!), since the high-tech innovations created for the extreme athletes often are adapted for mere mortals – in fact, many high-performance plastics initially used in sports gear for professional athletes today can be found in the everyday gear on neighborhood sports store shelves.

So what’s the future hold for plastics and sports gear? Likely an increased reliance on composites to continue to increase the strength and decrease the weight of gear. And advanced cushioning technologies incorporated into sports clothing—often where cushioning previously was not present, such as soccer uniforms. Plus more form-fitting compression sportswear, typically made with spandex.

And one more advance: the broader use of recycled plastics in sports uniforms. Remember those REALLY BRIGHTLY COLORED (some said gaudy) Adidas uniforms worn by six college basketball teams last March? They were made from 60 percent recycled plastics.

Play safely …

If professionals in the plastics industry ever need a reminder of the breadth of modern innovations made possible by advances in plastics, a quick trip through a sporting goods store (or its web site) should suffice. From running shoes to basketball jerseys to fishing rods, plastic materials carry descriptors including “breathable, durable, flexible, water resistant, stretchy, sweat-wicking, anti-chafing, second skin, extreme comfort, ultra-light, no-slip” and so on. One manufacturer even says its shirt “makes you feel damn near invincible.” Hmmm …