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NFL stars Jay Ajayi and Joey Bosa.
Jay Ajayi, then of the Miami Dolphins, has his hair tackled by Joey Bosa of the Los Angeles Chargers in September.
Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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NFL Players With Long Hair Could Be in for a World of Pain

A recent study says football players should know the risks of a flowing mane.

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Tune into any NFL game and it’s impossible to miss the Samson trend. Scores of players now have long hair. It’s like the jocks all became hippies, or Rastafarians, or something like that. In fact, this year’s two Super Bowl teams — the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots — have a dozen players between them with long, or longish, hair. These men boast dreadlocks and flowing manes that would put a Disney princess to shame. Since the aughts, football players have landed deals with haircare brands like Head & Shoulders or even insured their precious curls with Lloyd’s of London’s backing.

But a recent Sport Journal study called “Analyzing Hair Pulling in Athletics” urges football players not to skip their next cut. Study author Laura Ruhala, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, argues that long-haired players are vulnerable to catastrophic neck injuries because the NFL permits hair pulling to make a tackle. It gives the colloquialism “snatching wigs” an entirely new, and troubling, spin.

“I’m really concerned there’s going to be a serious injury,” Ruhala says. “It doesn’t mean it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet. I’m really concerned somebody’s going to end up with a broken neck because you can have twisting around several different axes — chin up and down, chin right and left, clockwise and counterclockwise.”

For years, the NFL refrained from making any rules about hair. But in 2003, it enacted the “Ricky Rule,” which deemed hair part of an athlete’s uniform. This gave players the green light to grab an opponent’s hair to pull him down. The rule’s namesake, Ricky Williams, is a former NFL tailback who has the dubious distinction of being tackled by his dreads twice in one game. Poor thing. Three years later, then-Pittsburgh Steeler safety Troy Polamalu was famously dragged by his ringlets.

Perhaps Polamalu’s pride, or his Head & Shoulders deal, was talking, but afterward he denied the tackle caused him pain.

“No, it didn’t hurt,” he insisted. “It felt good.”

Polamalu’s takedown prompted Orlando Sentinel sports columnist David Whitley to write about the dangers of long hair in the NFL. Today, the sportswriter still has concerns.

Former Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu
Former Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu’s head of ringlets led to his appearances in Head & Shoulders commercials.
Getty Images

“In the NFL, they are overly persnickety about rules,” he says. “Guys are getting fined for the most nitpicky things.” In his column, he pointed out that the league even regulates sock length. Hair, however, is a completely different animal.

“I could see why that could be dicey,” Whitley says of the NFL regulating length. “It’s [the players’] contention that long hair is an expression of culture. There’s a lot of cultural identity that goes with this. So regulating hair would be venturing on politically incorrect territory a little bit.”

Pacific Islanders, like Polamalu, have long hair because it’s part of their heritage. What’s more, African Americans have increasingly embraced their natural hair, including dreadlocks, over the past two decades. In 2008, the league did consider banning hair so long that it concealed the the names on jerseys, but after outcry from athletes, it walked back the idea. Since then, a number of players, including Andre Ellington, Richard Sherman, and Marshawn Lynch, have had their hair whipped back and forth, to paraphrase, um, Willow Smith. While Richard Sherman’s opponent just pulled his hair, Ellington and Lynch actually lost locs as they were tackled. Lynch coolly shrugged it off, retrieving his hair and tucking it into his waistband as if he’d simply dropped his cell phone and not had his hair ripped from the roots.

NFL star Marshawn Lynch
Marshawn Lynch of the Oakland Raiders looks on during their NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on December 17, 2017.
Photo: Don Feria/Getty Images

As recently as September, the ombre dreadlocks of Jay Ajayi, the Philadelphia running back headed Sunday to Super Bowl 52, inspired a controversial call. When Los Angeles Charger Joey Bosa pulled them, officials accused him of committing a horse collar tackle, a no-go in the league. “For a horse collar tackle you’ve got to grab inside the collar of either the jersey or the shoulder pad or on the nameplate and pull the runner toward the ground,” explained Fox Sports rules analyst Dean Blandino, who objected to the foul call against Bosa. Blandino cited the Ricky Rule, arguing that Bosa had actually pulled Ajayi’s locs, a perfectly legal, albeit controversial, maneuver.

According to Ruhala’s study, which analyzed 2015 NFL data, 14 percent of the 2,905 athletes on team rosters had hair long enough to activate the Ricky Rule. A slight majority of such players, 54 percent, played defense, while 44 percent played offense. Ruhala says it’s plain risky for offensive players to grow out their cuts since their hair could be used to tackle them, and more than 500 pounds of force could be applied to their necks during the takedown. The stakes here are much higher than a bald patch. Hair tackles could result in “high shear and compressive stresses in the neck, as well as neck torsion, that could cause severe and life-changing injuries” the study posits.

Despite these dangers, not everyone is sounding the alarm about the Ricky Rule. John A. Torres, a former Florida Today sports columnist and author of more than 40 sports books for children, says the NFL shouldn’t prohibit hair tackles. He argues that football players, even at the college level, try to gain every advantage they can.

“Wide receivers will often wear jerseys that look painted on,” he says. “Why so tight? Because they don’t want defenders grabbing their jerseys as they run their routes and try to get open. Why do that and then allow long flowing hair or braids to be exposed?”

He also points out how difficult it is to make a tackle. Players may not be able to avoid the hair.

“It is very difficult to let go of a jersey, face mask, leg, arm, or even a handful of hair,” he says. “Your instinct is to grab and pull down and make the tackle. It is unfair to ask defensive players to let go.”

Torres recommends that long-haired players tuck their hair into their uniforms to prevent it from being exposed.

How players wear their long hair matters — and not just for aesthetic reasons. Ruhala’s research found that 74 percent of long-haired players in 2015 had dreadlocks, and 24 percent had free-flowing hair.

“The knotting of the dreads makes the hair weaker, like when you knot a rope, because there’s all of these stress concentrations,” Ruhala says. “But dreads are actually safer because if the hair breaks, the force is not transmitted to the skull and neck. The dreadlocks are safer than the free-flowing hair.”

Philadelphia Eagles star Beau Allen
Beau Allen of the Philadelphia Eagles warms up with a pink ribbon on his ponytail prior to his game at Lincoln Financial Field on October 8, 2017.
Photo: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

That makes the football field the rare venue where having hair that breaks is a positive. Neither free-flowing hair nor ponytails offers this protection. The study singles out ponytails as especially dangerous because the style, which bundles hair together, ups the odds that the head and neck will absorb most of a tackle’s force.

Ruhala says more research is needed to fully understand the possible ramifications of hair tackles. The biomechanical engineer once had a job designing airbags, and testing those required crash test dummies. She says a dummy could have its hair pulled at various angles to determine the odds of long-haired football players experiencing a fracture, paralysis, or even a clinical decapitation, which occurs when the skull detaches from the neck.

Still, Ruhala doubts the NFL will take action until a catastrophic injury happens. She acknowledges that players want the freedom to express themselves but wonders why if the socks, shoes, and jewelry they wear are subject to restrictions, their hair couldn’t be as well.

“The players themselves are so powerful,” she says. “I would like to think the players are informed and realize the risks they are taking.”

So far, high school students don’t appear to be emulating their long-haired heroes in the NFL, according to Deven Callum, a high school football coach at Miguel Contreras Learning Complex in Los Angeles. High school leagues prohibit hair tackles, while the NCAA doesn’t expressly ban them.

During his nine years coaching, “I’ve only had one kid who had long hair,” Callum says. “In high school, we always coach that you shouldn’t be grabbing from the hair.”

Coaches advise kids with long hair to pull it up or tuck it under their helmet, Callum says. An NFL fan, the coach says he doesn’t view hair tackles as “a big deal” because they simply don’t occur often.

Whitley says hair tackles could be a point of contention if they cost a team a game — especially a crucial one like a playoff or the Super Bowl.

“The thing that gets to me is that in other sports, you want to be unencumbered,” he says. “You’re not going to see a track sprinter with that kind of hair.”

In nearly every other sport, Whitley contends, you won’t see athletes doing anything to give their opponents the edge. And given the percentage of long-haired NFL players, hair tackles are bound to happen.

“But if it happens once in every 1,000 plays and the thousandth play is a critical one,” he says, “then the NFL will have to do something, and it will be interesting to see what it’ll do.”

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