(Ted Kinsman/Getty Images)
(Ted Kinsman/Getty Images)

The First Line of Defense

The role of helmets in making football safer follows a fine line. Manufacturers are using innovating methods to produce smarter models. But will players wear them, and how far can technology go in lessening the impacts that lead to concussions?

By
Jenny Vrentas
· More from Jenny·

The question proved to be something of a brainteaser: Do you wear the helmet with the most modern technology?

During The MMQB’s NFL training camp tour this summer, we asked this of a handful of players. Their answers comprised only an informal spot sample, not nearly large enough to be representative of the league. But it was a window into the range of players’ perspectives. 

Some said yes, they did use one of the most up-to-date helmets. Some thought they did, hoped they did or weren’t really sure. And some, like Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, gave a definitive no.

“I wear what I always wore,” said Woodley, a seven-year veteran. “If you’re going to get knocked out, you’re going to get knocked out. A helmet doesn’t stop that.”

The role of helmets in the ongoing quest to make the game safer follows a fine line. Brain injuries in football are the result of the brain’s shifting rapidly inside the skull due to an impact or a violent movement of the head. Helmets don’t prevent that movement of the brain and likely never will. But they are an important first physical line of defense, one that might be made more effective by new and “smart” technology.


Can football change? Will the sport become safer? How are concussions impacting the game’s future?

Introducing an in-depth series where we tackle those questions, starting at high schools and continuing into college and the NFL. Read the entire series.

After the 2013 season, when Riddell’s licensing agreement with the NFL expires, there will no longer be an “official helmet of the NFL,” commissioner Roger Goodell told The MMQB. That step eliminates a trickle-down perception that one manufacturer’s helmets are superior or preferred. (NFL players are permitted to wear any brand’s helmet as long as the model is approved by NOCSAE, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment).

This decision pairs with a wider effort to better incorporate the helmet into strategies that enhance player health and safety, as researchers and helmet manufacturers search for materials and designs that will more effectively reduce the force of impact transferred to a player’s head. The NFL, for its part, is sponsoring a $10 million innovation challenge along with General Electric and Under Armour for new ideas in this area. And this season for the first time, sensors to record head impacts will be used on a small group of NFL players, through a pilot program supported by the league and the NFL Players Association.

The hard polycarbonate armor for the head has both limitations and possibilities.

* * *

Inside NFL locker rooms this season, large posters depict 18 helmet models across six brands and provide their ratings in Virginia Tech’s “STAR” evaluation system: five stars (“best available”), four stars (“very good”), three stars (“good”), two stars (“adequate”), one star (“marginal”), and no stars (“not recommended”).

The helmet marketplace has expanded since 1989, when the NFL forged what Goodell characterized as a marketing deal with Riddell that was at the time indefinite. Under that deal, Riddell has been the only brand name that can be seen on NFL helmets—on non-Riddell models a team logo replaces the brand name on the bumper plate above the facemask—and according to a spokesperson for the company, 68 percent of NFL players wore Riddell helmets last season. The company has several top-rated models, including the 360 and the Revolution Speed, but the existence of an “official helmet” has drawn scrutiny for the message it might send from the game’s highest level.

“We’re not going to be extending our agreement with Riddell or anybody else,” Goodell said during a visit to a Heads Up Football youth league in Fairfield, Conn., over the summer. “We actually put [on] a deadline, negotiated it back and said, ‘We want this over.’ … We had to use quite a bit of leverage to get there, but we got there.”

The warning sticker on the back of a helmet. (Taylor Ballantyne/SI)
Today’s helmets come with their own warning labels. (Taylor Ballantyne/Sports Illustrated)

In response to a question about its agreement with the league, Riddell said, “We are proud of our relationship with the NFL, one that we’ve maintained since 1989. We are not aware of the sentiment you shared regarding efforts to end the agreement. We look forward to a continued positive and productive relationship with the NFL in the future. Beyond that, it’s our policy not to share the details of our business contracts.” Riddell, which was being sued along with the league by thousands of former players and their families over head trauma in football, was not part of the agreement reached in August between the NFL and the plaintiffs. A spokesperson for Riddell declined to comment on the continuing litigation.

The NFL sent a memo to all 32 clubs in June as a reminder that players must have the opportunity to see and try “a wide range of helmets from leading manufacturers,” at no cost to the player. But the breadth of options can make for a confusing decision, while some NOCSAE-approved helmets might not have the most advanced technology to mitigate the head’s acceleration upon impact.

The memo offered Virginia Tech’s STAR ratings—described by the university’s researchers as a ranking of how well helmet models reduce the risk of concussion— as one guideline for players in selecting helmets. Twelve models are rated with four or five stars. The league’s memo advises that there is little difference between these top-performing helmets, and that helmet fit might be a deciding factor.

The different helmets available to Giants players are on display in an equipment room at the team facility. (Demetrius Freeman/The New York Times)
The different helmets available to Giants players are on display in an equipment room at the team facility. (Demetrius Freeman/The New York Times)

At the Giants’ East Rutherford facility, a vault of sliding metal racks in a back storeroom holds aisles of helmets and facemasks. Equipment director Joe Skiba surveys new players, asking such questions as, “What helmet did you wear in the past? Were you happy with it? Do you want to try something new?” The choice ultimately is up to the player. Appearance is still a common factor; some players for instance are deterred by futuristic face masks on newer models.

Riddell’s Revolution Speed, a five-star helmet, and Schutt’s Air XP, a three-star helmet, are the models most commonly worn by Giants players, but Skiba offers at least one of every approved and updated model for them to try. Some discontinued models, like Riddell’s VSR4—NOCSAE-approved  but rated a one-star/“marginal” on Virginia Tech’s scale—are still in rotation in the NFL, but Skiba sends outdated models to the community relations department for use as memorabilia at charity events.

“You read ‘adequate’ or ‘marginal’ protection, and they’re a linebacker or a running back, and you think, ‘Did I give him enough information?’ ” Skiba said of helping players choose helmets. “Equipment guys and trainers are now the first line of defense to keep these guys protected.”

* * *

Helmets were introduced into football to prevent skull fractures and subdural hematoma in the early 1900s. They’ve evolved over the past century from leather to the first hard plastic design in 1939 to models now made to address the concussion risk. Riddell, for instance, introduced the Revolution in 2002 in response to data that highlighted the risk of concussion from blows to the side of the head and face. That model extended the helmet shell to cover the jaw and added energy-absorbing material to those areas. Their latest model, the 360, features a flexible face mask that can help absorb the energy of hits to the front of the helmet.

In addition to major manufacturers Riddell, Schutt and Rawlings, other companies have entered the market, including Xenith, with its shock-absorber system (helmets rated four and five stars) and former racecar driver Bill Simpson’s Kevlar-lined SG brand with Kevlar in the shell (rated four stars).

Pennsylvania-based Unequal Technologies sells a thin Kevlar lining that Steelers team neurosurgeon Joseph Maroon said 10 to 12 Pittsburgh players inserted into their helmets last season as an additional layer of protection. But this approach is unproven and presents risks, since add-ons void a helmet’s NOCSAE certification and possibly the helmet manufacturer’s warranty.

The helmet’s original purpose—protecting against the catastrophic injuries that threatened the earliest version of the game—is being fulfilled, but as the awareness and attention paid to concussions rise, so too have the expectations. “The problem is, we want to have our cake and eat it, too,” said Kevin Guskiewicz, founding director of the University of North Carolina’s Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center. “We want helmets to be able to manage those big, high-velocity impacts, along with the small, more subtle energy management inside the skull where we get the shearing of the tissue. Combining all those materials, you’d have a helmet that probably weighed more than 40 pounds. So that’s the challenge.”

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19 comments
ussajaxshellback
ussajaxshellback

Padding on the outside of the helmet, such as a memory foam type that will give easily yet have some density.

about 3/8 " would make a lot of difference.

MatCarter1
MatCarter1

I know a dad who bought the $300 helmet and his son had the most concussions. Those players with the older helmets he deplored had none.

SpartanTarget
SpartanTarget

I appreciate that Skiba was probably constrained with what he could talk about publicly, and that he may have said things that were edited out, but I was kind of thrown by the fact that we didn't hear him saying "I always encourage guys to get the five-star-rated helmets and try to talk them out of the lower-rated ones." I know this stuff is at the player's discretion, but when you're trying to give someone protective gear, why not try to steer him toward the current best model?

And I know that keeping the size of helmets down is an issue, but I wonder if someday they'll be able to build some kind of external crumple points to absorb impacts.

lunchboxwanderer
lunchboxwanderer

Why don't the helmet manufacturers talk with the engineers that make Indy cars? Indy had a huge problem with drivers getting killed because the cars didn't absorb the shock, the driver did.


Their solution was to design the car to absorb all the impact. Has anyone noticed that these cars now break into a thousand pieces on impact? What this is disperse all the energy of the collision outward so the driver suffers minimal effects.

Imagine making a disposable helmet shell that on impact would crack and spider web like the windshield of a car. The material would disperse the energy.

Once a helmet is damaged, the player would be required go to the sidelines and get a new shell that slips over the interior padding. This would be way more expensive because teams would go through about a thousand shells but would decrease head injuries significantly.

SportsbuyerJim
SportsbuyerJim

Ms. Vrentas, - Helmets are really one of the problems but your article doesn't quite explain all it could have. My sons helmet always was too big and now I know why it needs to fit, And, you wrote about NOCSAE and i have to wonder about the sensors that are being tested in the helmet. Do they void NOCSAE? Actually for our team it doesn't matter since we rather track the possible concussions. My sons PTA did show The Smartest Team film and it was on the PBS here in Colorado-our school is now following what the school in Oklahoma (the one in the film)  did and so far we have only had one concussion all season-games, practices etc. 

Iowa
Iowa

As it alluded to, ultimately the helmet is generally not the problem with concussions. The problem is players are too fast (and big).

Test for HGH to stop people from artificially bulking up. And personally think with all the injuries guys are getting to muscles and joints as a result of bulking up is eventually going to lead to some investigating of whether it's really good to be so big.

To slow players down: no more artificial turf (even FieldTurf, which is supposedly 'just like grass' is considerably faster than natural grass). Longer grass. Bigger pads, jerseys, etc.-1980s style-to restrict movement slightly and also to provide more 'crush zone' to dissipate impacts. The nastiest hits nowadays, some come from leading with helmet, but others are guys with tiny shoulder pads just dropping the shoulder and using almost a whiplash effect to level a guy.

Ultimately you can't make any sport injury-proof, whether it be football, hockey, soccer or any other (soccer players are quite susceptible to concussions too) but there are ways to minimize the risks even slightly that so far football teams have shown no interest in looking at.

horsley1953
horsley1953

You want to make things safer, then take away all the protective gear. Players not wearing helmets and pads won't be launching themselves like missiles at other players. While you are doing all these reports, you ought to gather injury and concussion stats for Aussie football and rugby and to compare with the NFL.

Nathan16
Nathan16

All this talk about force and no discussion of what makes a hit more or less forceful.

Force = Mass *Acceleration

Players have got larger (more massive) and faster (greater acceleration, specifically negative values upon collision). If no feasible helmet can absorb enough of that force--and a twenty pound helmet cannot absorb all the force of a two hundred pound player--the answer is in basic math.

To reduce concussions, players need to be either smaller or slower. Obviously the market is selecting for big and fast because that's who makes the team and starts games. One way leagues could improve safety through consistently across teams is to remove the spikes from shoes. By not allowing anyone to have traction larger that 1/8 or 1/16" they would not be able to accelerate from stopped or cut as well which would reduce top speeds across the board. This would dramatically reduce the energy of collisions (E=m*v^2, so half velocity equals a quarter the energy), and energy is the major issue in Inelastic collisions like these.

Tom Tucker
Tom Tucker

The human brain is not firm and rubbery – that is what looks like soaking in a jar of  formaldehyde. The human brain's composition is like soft butter, a cross between jello and tofu. The inside of the human skull has many pointy, jagged bones. Even minor bumps to the head can cause the brain to bounce back and forth against the skulls jagged liner. The only thing that will ever prevent brain injuries is not playing the barbaric game. I wouldn't even allow a child of mine to hit a hard soccer ball on their head. As a society, we continue to fail to acknowledge the most important organ in our bodies, our precious brains. 

morejunk
morejunk

Love the helmet sticker.

Over the past few seasons I wonder how many times Jay Cutler has had to call his mom?

BrookeDeLench
BrookeDeLench

Nice article. Last summer during the filming of “THE SMARTEST TEAM: Making High School Football Safer” (PBS) we ran a “blind test” with helmets so see which ones fit and felt the best on a high school football team from Oklahoma. Time and again, the helmets the boys preferred in the blind test were not the helmets they ended up selecting. When asked why they “did not want to wear the one that fit their particular head the best and/or felt best” we were told that X-brand was the one that “looked sharper.” Proper fit is critical. Smaller helmets are not a better answer –however, I believe “lighter” helmets will win out. 

We also need a way for inventors/innovators to bring their new designs to market. I have three helmet designs sitting on my desk that were sent to me by three individuals- each looks very promising yet with current standards they may never see the light of day. The team we filmed/followed was also the BETA testers for sensors placed in the helmets last year. Contrary to public opinion most high school boys actually want sensors in/on helmets to take the responsibility of reporting away from them.

Brooke de Lench

Producer and Director

THE SMARTEST TEAM: Making High School Football Safer (PBS Fall 2013)

-

MatCarter1
MatCarter1

Please stop posting comments like this. Youth football has concussions daily by doctors terms. These kids are not bigger, faster, stronger at 8-12 years old. It is society changing what a concussion is. Boys on my team thought they had one every day.

MatCarter1
MatCarter1

Then why so many in youth football dumbass?

MatCarter1
MatCarter1

You are the beginning of the end for football! Thank you. What else are you going to stick your nose into? War?

fgoodwin
fgoodwin

@MatCarter1 Bigger + faster = more violent hits and therefore more serious injuries.  Sure there are concussions in youth football (I got my "bell rung" playing 9th grade football), but you can't argue with math.

fgoodwin
fgoodwin

@MatCarter1 post your comments but spare us the name calling.  You can't argue with the math so youresort to namecalling?  How about debating what he actually wrote?  No one said youth football does not have injuries.  What he said is that bigger + faster = more serious injuries.  You can't argue with that.

fgoodwin
fgoodwin

@MatCarter1 Once again, no substantive response to the post.  Instead you make ad hominem attacks.  

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