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This is Part One of "Head Games," PFW’s look inside the helmet industry as it pertains to the NFL. In this installment, associate editor Kevin Fishbain introduces the series with a focus on the challenges helmet manufacturers face when trying to combat the concussion problem.
Would you let your child play football? Suddenly, that question is not only getting a “no” response from panicked mothers.
The question isn’t new, but it has become more polarizing than ever, as current and former players have come forward, saying they wouldn’t let their kids step on the gridiron.
Football has always been a violent game — for some, that’s the appeal, but this is a new era of football, and concussions and the long-term effects of head injuries are at the forefront.
The object that protects a player’s head from injury is right in the middle of the discussion. Helmet manufacturers are in an arms race of sorts; trying to put out the best product to increase sales — it is a business, after all — and one that can also give parents, players and coaches the confidence that it will help reduce the risk of concussions. Many would say those go hand-in-hand — a helmet that has the data to back up its effectiveness in protecting the brain will likely be a big seller.
Over the next few days, PFW will take a close look at the helmet industry as it pertains to the NFL, examining the four major helmet brands — Riddell, Schutt, Xenith and Rawlings — and what they are each doing to combat concussions. The NOCSAE (National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment) standard and Virginia Tech star-rating system will also be covered. Finally, we’ll look at the NFL’s financial relationship with Riddell, and investigate whether the league will ever have an “official” helmet again.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has made safety priority No. 1, cracking down on punishing hits by defenders starting in 2010 and instituting more stringent rules regarding how concussed players are evaluated and treated.
Kevin Guskiewicz admitted he was an outspoken critic of the league for many years. “I felt as if they weren’t taking this issue as seriously as they should,” he said. Guskiewicz, Professor and Director of the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, is now the chair of the league’s Subcommittee on Safety Equipment and Playing Rules, part of the Head, Neck and Spine Committee, and he has been one of the leaders in concussion research, especially specific to how helmets can combat the problem.
“Roger Goodell has taken this issue very seriously, and player safety will probably be his legacy,” Guskiewicz said.
There is no such thing as a helmet that prevents concussions, but helmet manufacturers are working to improve their products to better protect players’ heads. Helmets, according to some, have been part of the problem, and now they are trying to be part of the solution. You don’t have to look too far into one of the many head-injury-related lawsuits filed against the league to see the name “Riddell” listed as a defendant. The official helmet of the NFL since 1989, Riddell is being held culpable by several former players who have sued the league.
Helmet manufacturers have worked for years to keep making helmets safer, but protecting against concussions is another animal. Concussions continue to evolve in terms of what we know about them, and simply put, helmets can only do so much.
“If you didn’t wear a helmet to (the NOCSAE) standard, the number of concussions and serious injuries would be off the charts,” said Mike Oliver, executive director of NOCSAE. To be worn by an NFL player, a helmet must be NOCSAE certified. “The concern is with all the focus on helmets, players, parents and coaches are going to start thinking that’s the answer and not think about the things that make a much bigger difference.
“We believe there is a subset of concussions where the head is rotating really hard and gets a small input from the side. Because the brain is undergoing stressing, that blow can cause a serious concussion. You can get a concussion without getting hit in the head, without getting hit violently in the head.”
Oliver pointed out the concussions suffered by Eagles WR DeSean Jackson and Colts WR Austin Collie in 2010.
“If you study the films, study the slow motions of those collisions, what you’ll see in both of them is that there was no blow to the head,” he said. “Both of these players were rendered unconscious because of the violence of the snap of their heads, a whiplash.”
Oliver added that one of NOCSAE’s concerns is the reliance people put on helmets to prevent concussion. NFLPA medical director Dr. Thom Mayer emphasized the point as well.
“Pretty smart people will tell you that relying solely on a helmet to prevent concussions in the NFL is a mighty leaky vessel to put that much hope into,” Mayer said.
Guskiewicz uses a common analogy to explain some of the challenges that face helmet manufacturers looking to prevent concussions.
“The brain simulates the egg yolk. … If you toss an egg back and forth, every time it leaves my hand and you catch it, the egg yolk rebounds off the surface of the egg shell. The brain does the same thing,” he explained. “Bubble wrap will help prevent the shell from cracking. … It’s the same thing with the brain. A hard shell helmet will prevent the skull from fracturing, but the brain is still sloshing around in the cranial cavity.
“It’s all about managing that energy. That’s what helmet manufacturers are trying to do, regardless of the sport.”
“Helmets can do virtually nothing to protect the brain inside the skull,” said Glenn Beckman, director of marketing communications for Schutt Sports, the second-most popular helmet provider for NFL players. “That player’s head can suffer an impact that scrambles a brain like yolks in an egg shell.”
Oliver also used the egg-shell theory when discussing the challenge of factoring in rotational acceleration, or hits that are not straight-on.
“We know quite a bit about concussions as a result of linear acceleration, or a straight hit to the head where the head moves in one direction. Helmets do a really good job of handling that energy,” he said. “More than half of concussions are caused when the brain inside the skull rotates, or the skull rotates on an angular acceleration. It’s very difficult to address that energy with a helmet. You can protect the shell, but the yolk inside that shell moves independently.”
That’s just one of the obstacles facing engineers. The rotational acceleration and low-level hits that occur at high frequency throughout a single game are among things that helmet manufacturers are attempting to factor in with their latest technology and designs.
“(Helmet manufacturers) began to change the design to help mitigate the forces to the head and to the brain,” said Guskiewicz.
Dr. Stefan Duma developed a star-rating system for evaluating helmets at Virginia Tech. Duma’s system is considered by some to be a positive step in narrowing down which helmets are best at reducing the risk of concussions, but others criticize the study. That will be further detailed in Part Three of this series. Duma commented on how helmet technology has improved over the years.
“If you look at helmet performance, it has progressed quite well over several decades,” he said. “Manufacturers are able to come out with optimized helmets to reduce the risk of concussion.”
“Over the past decade, we have noticed a considerable change in the aesthetics of a football helmet,” said Giants equipment manager Joe Skiba, who is on the league’s Subcommittee on Safety Equipment and Playing Rules. “The continuous data received from research has resulted in the evolution of the materials used and padding configuration in helmets. It has been a positive progression. The design of today’s helmet is such that the helmet and facemask work in conjunction to aid in player safety.”
Several experts emphasized how the fit of a helmet is very important for players when they choose one, and that can factor in protecting the brain inside their skull. Skiba explained what he tells players when they try on helmets.
“First and foremost, the message that we would like to convey is that no helmet can prevent the mechanism of a concussion. However, today’s helmets reduce the severity of impact,” he said. “We use helmets that incorporate all the latest technology. Beyond that, obviously the fit and feel of the helmet are important. The top priorities in everything we do are player safety and performance.”
Players have more helmet choices today than ever before. It’s no longer just Riddell and Schutt. Vin Ferrara’s Xenith helmets, which use shock-absorbing technology, are relatively new to the NFL and increasing in popularity, and Rawlings recently re-entered the market.
The increase in helmet makers permeating the NFL should only help the cause. We’re nearing training camp, when coaches and players always say that competition makes everyone better, and the same can be said in the helmet industry.
“We’ve had people imply that helmet makers are doing everything they can to maximize their profit, cutting corners on materials,” said Schutt’s Beckman. “We have every moral, ethical and financial incentive to make the best helmet we possibly can. Can you imagine how many helmets would be sold if they could prove empirically that you could prevent concussions? It’s in our best interests to make the best helmet we can.”
“We absolutely welcome competition,” said Thad Ide, senior vice president of research and product development at Riddell, the industry leader. “It makes everybody better. It makes us better. It drives innovation. It drives putting better helmet technology on the field. It’s better for the players, the league — it’s better for everybody.”
Head Games, Part Two: The Big Four