Helmets and Surfing

Have you ever laughed when you saw an old picture of a hockey goalie playing without a helmet? What gives us that guttural chuckle? Humor often comes from things that are unexpected or in contrast to what we know of the world at one particular cross section of time. In 2012, seeing a hockey player without a helmet just doesn’t seem right. In contrast, in the 60s it did! People of that era often poked fun of those wearing hockey helmets, not because of anything related to the helmet’s function, but simply because the image didn’t match their vision of hockey players at that particular time in history. Keep in mind that some attempted to introduce hockey helmets in the NHL as early as 1927, but it wasn’t until the high profile death of Bill Masterson in 1968 that public perception began to change. By 1979 the NHL made helmets mandatory for all new players.

Does it ever make you wonder whether helmets in surfing will go through the same progression? In 50 years will we be chuckling at photos of helmet-less surfers riding Mavericks or Pipe? We just don’t know and only time will tell.

But if that is indeed the case and surfing follows the footsteps of hockey, there are some surfers out there leading the cause. And they all share one thing in common: the ability to tolerate the stigma of paddling out into the line up with a helmet on their heads.

Ethan Ward, a 10 year old ripping surfer from Manhattan Beach, is one of these leaders.  It would be safe to say that his parents John and Sig are also leaders by association. As described in the article Surfing Through Brain Injury, published by TheInertia.com, at 9 years old Ethan suffered a skull fracture and subsequent intracranial bleed when he was hit by the board of another surfer as he paddled out at El Porto Beach. After a lengthy recovery and 4 months out of the water, he was able to return to the sport he loves, but with one caveat, wearing a helmet - at least most of the time. As Ethan’s father John says, both Ethan and his parents are caught in the bind of balancing stigma and safety. Whereas John and Sig would love to have a helmet be just as much a part of Ethan’s surfing as the board itself, it’s a difficult thing to force your kid to do something that goes against the grain of social norms.  

Just as we get a guttural response to seeing pictures of hockey players without helmets, simply because it violates our 2012 social and athletic norms, we might get the same response when we see Ethan or another surfer paddle into the line up wearing a helmet. A helmeted surfer simply doesn’t match our image of what we think surfers should look like in 2012. So what does that mean? Does it mean that surfing with a helmet is bad thing? Is our stigma against helmets in surfing a valuable tool for measuring their value? Or does it just mean that we are all uncomfortable with things that sit outside our norms? If by 2060, helmets become a norm in surfing, then Ethan Ward was a true leader in 2012.

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