Stories you may have missed: Making football helmets safer

SAN DIEGO - JANUARY 17: A New York Jets helmet sits on the sidelines during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on January 17, 2010 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The effects of concussions on football players of all ages has been a hot topic over the past decade, and recent studies on what those brain injuries mean in later life have shed new light on what used to be passed off as “getting your bell rung”.

The emphasis on treating such injuries has impacted the game at all levels, and the focus has turned to the one piece of equipment that is used to protect the brain, and at times, also considered a weapon on the playing field — the helmet.

This week’s edition of “Stories You May Have Missed” focuses on the helmet. The football helmet has come a long way since the 1950s, but there is research and development being done to see if this vital piece of equipment can be refined to lessen the effects of concussions, especially to those most affected by brain injuries — youth players from pee-wee through high school.

If you are a parent of a youth or high-school football player, you need to pay attention to an article published in The New York Times about helmets that are being used across the country.

Childen and young people who play the sport are particularly at risk when collisions occur, and it might surprise you to find out that the standards of testing are not as high as you would think, and that there are helmets in use now that shouldn’t be because of age or wear.

The key quote in Alan Schwarz’s article is this early summary of the problem:

“Moreover, used helmets worn by the vast majority of young players encountered stark lapses in the industry’s few safety procedures. Some of the businesses that recondition helmets ignored testing rules, performed the tests incorrectly or returned helmets that were still in poor condition. More than 100,000 children are wearing helmets too old to provide adequate protection — and perhaps half a million more are wearing potentially unsafe helmets that require critical examination, according to interviews with experts and industry data.”

Pretty sobering stuff contained in the article, and it is worth a question to those in charge of football programs at the youth level. Bottom line, if your son or daughter is playing the sport, get them the best headgear you can afford rather than what is provided to them, if possible.

What if equipment manufacturers got position-specific in how they developed helmets? Just like the highly individual face mask designs that ran the gamut from Joe Theismann’s single-bar to the cage-style worn by interior linemen, could helmets be designed the same way?

Well if you took the information being gathered by Virginia Tech on the types of impact taken by players in games and practices since 2003, you might have an answer, according to the Roanoke Times. About 60 players, including most starters, have six sensors called accelerometers in their helmets, which send data to a sideline computer.

This information on direction and force is being gathered in a study funded by the National Institutes of Health. According to writer Sarah Bruyn Jones, the system is being used by a dozen college programs and several high-school teams.

The cost ($65,000) of Simbex’s HITS (Head Impact Telemetry System) is prohibitive for schools, but the company is trying to make a version that is less expensive that would help monitor hits that could cause concussions.

“It wouldn’t provide all the data of the more expensive system, but it would give an alert when a player has been overexposed to hits, either through a single impact or cumulative impacts. The exposure levels come from position-specific data that have already been collected. Simbex has recorded about 1.5 million hits and 70 concussions.”

A major manufacturer that is the “official helmet of the NFL,” Riddell, is working with Simbex on the HITS technology. Along with the Riddell Revolution helmet that has gained traction in the NFL and lower levels, the company has developed the Riddell Revolution IQ helmet ($1,030) that allows users to download information on hits to personal computers.

There is a smaller helmet manufacturer to keep an eye on. That’s Xenith, based in Lowell, Mass. Xenith’s X1 helmet was certified in 2007, and the company sold 12,000 helmets in 2009, according to a press release touting the raising of $10.5 million in equity financing.

The X1, developed by former Harvard quarterback Vin Ferrara, who has business and medical degrees from Columbia University, is designed with 18 adaptive air-cell shock absorbers instead of the tradtional foam models seen now.

One coach on the university level who is happy with the new helmets, is Dave Johnson, the head coach of Simon Fraser University in Canada.

Johnson, who appeared on Canada’s CTV network, spoke about what the helmet has done for his players:

“With a traditional helmet, the head can move around inside the helmet. With the Xenith, inside the helmet, there’s a bonnet that pulls tight around the head, so that it’s the helmet that moves around the head.”

Johnson says 70 of his 98 players are wearing them. In the last year, the SFU coach said nine or 10 players absorbed concussions, but none were wearing the Xenith. When the players were medically cleared to return, he said that they had to switch helmets to the X1 to return to action.

The cost of the helmets are prohibitive, as one high school in North Carolina found out. Holly Springs HS in the Raleigh area, got a donation of 50 X1 helmets from an anonymous donor after a player suffered a concussion.

The X1s, according to Tim Stevens of the Raleigh News & Observer, cost $350 each in bulk, and $400 retail. The $15,000 donation is significant for a school that, like most, buys six to 10 helmets each year for about $250 each.

The school goes through the apparently inadequate inspection and certification process on helmets each year that the above NYT article describes, and the athletic department retires any helmets that don’t pass.

“In these days and times, the savings in helmets is significant,” Holly Springs athletic director Andy Wheeler said. “Everyone knows public school budgets are tighter and tighter.”

Lastly, the NFL and the NFLPA has a big role in youth football, through the endowment in 2002 of USA Football, the youth football development partner of the NFL and NFLPA.

According to USA Football, the organization awards more than $1 million annually in equipment grants to youth football leagues and high school football programs based on merit and need.

Because of its role in youth play, USA Football has a series of educational videos for parents of youth players on concussion awareness, called “Put Pride Aside For Player Safety.” It’s worth watching if you have children that play the game, or if you are involved as a coach or administrator.

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