The NFL will be cracking down on larger, "overbuilt" facemasks for the 2014 season, the league announced in a memo sent to players and teams on Monday, via NFL.com. The league also released a statement confirming as much on Tuesday, saying that the use of non-standard or overbuilt facemasks will be prohibited as part of a "continuing effort to protect players from unnecessary risk."
According to the statement, the non-standardized facemasks present "particular safety risks," and also more frequently fail the certification tests from the company (NOCSAE) which approves equipment for the NFL. All helmets and facemasks have to be certified by this organization, though it's unclear if the facemasks that did make it through last season actually failed or not.
According to the statement, four players wore non-standardized facemasks last season, and all four had medical exemptions. Those four players will be able to apply for said exemptions once again, but given that the league is cracking down, obtaining those exemptions will presumably be harder.
So what's the actual issue with the helmets? There's a summary of the research, which was conducted last year under supervision of Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz of the University of North Carolina and Dr. Erik Swartz of the University of New Hampshire, that lists out four specific bullet points as to why these helmets are deemed unsafe.
Those four points break down as such: the added weight affects the structural integrity of the helmets during "impact certification tests;" the added weight of the masks shifts the head's center of gravity forward, which could fatigue the neck and result in a head-down posture during tackling; the smaller spaces in the mask increase the risk of another player's finger getting caught between the wires, potentially resulting in serious injury; and the additional material "may negatively affect a player's behavior during contact and tackling due to an added false sense of security."
As noted in the initial NFL.com report linked above, at least one player has already expressed concern about the research: Baltimore Ravens defensive end Chris Canty. He was among those wearing one of the non-standard facemasks last season, and he claims he can't play without the custom mask and eye shield, thanks to an incident in 2005 in which a beer bottle hit his eye which gave him a detached retina.
It's unclear if Canty will be able to get a medical exemption, but it's hard to imagine the league wouldn't work with him in changing up his facemask to a workable extent in the event that what he submits doesn't pass. Canty hasn't been the only one to speak out, as Darnell Dockett of the Arizona Cardinals has, unsurprisingly, weighed in on the matter.
Of course, Dockett's reasoning is quite a bit different than Canty's. It's unclear if Dockett does have a medical reason to prefer an elaborate facemask, but his Tweet suggests he's most-concerned about the swag aspect of his helmets. The NFL does have strict uniform code, which is frequently violated by players who don't mind paying the relatively small fines.
Dockett also took to Instagram to do ... something. There's a video you should watch there, showing Dockett and his preferred facemask and eye shield, which does certainly seem to qualify as "swag." Still, that Tweet and video aren't likely to enact change on NFL policy.