Helmet improvement not perfect solution to concussions

Football helmets are often the only protection for a high school football player against a serious concussion. (Photo by Ryan Decker/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – A Cronkite News survey of high schools in Maricopa County found that many are willing to invest in the highest-quality football helmets in order to ensure the safety of their players.

Of the 81 schools contacted by Cronkite, 28 responded to the survey and provided information about the primary helmets used by their football teams. The helmets received an average rating of 4.8 stars out of a possible five on a helmet-rating scale developed at Virginia Tech University.

And those five-star helmets are not cheap, ranging from about $200 to more than $400 per helmet.

But experts say that even with the best equipment, high school athletes will be susceptible to concussions and that improving helmets is more of a Band-Aid on the problem than a solution to it.

“I personally don’t think that (helmets) can be made safer to prevent concussions. There’s not really anything you can do to prevent them,” said Casey Erickson, program coordinator at the Barrow Concussion Network, a telemedicine network of physicians and athletic trainers that provides concussion resources to Arizona’s high schools.

Still, companies that make helmets and the schools that use them are trying.

Several companies are focused on improving the technology of football helmets in the attempt to create one that can protect the wearer from the type of head trauma that can result in serious side effects down the line.

Quality of helmets in Arizona high schools

The Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings rank 31 football helmet models based upon their ability to reduce the risk of concussion.

The ratings, which have been published since 2011, are based on a five-star system ranging from “best available,” which receives five stars, to “very good” (four stars), “good” (three stars), “adequate” (two stars), “marginal” (one star) and “not recommended” (no stars).

Virginia Tech puts the helmets through various tests, according to Stefan Duma, head of Virginia Tech’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics. These include drop tests, pendulum tests and pneumatic tests.

“We test each helmet 120 different times in four different directions – front, side, back and top – at five different energy levels, and we aggregate all that testing into one star value,” Duma said.

In the 2016 study, only three helmet models earned a rating of two or fewer stars: The Schutt Air Advantage (two stars), the Riddell VSR4 (one) and the Adams A2000 Pro Elite (not recommended).

None of the schools that responded to the Cronkite News survey used helmets with a rating below three stars.

There is a significant price difference between helmets in the various rating categories. For instance, the average cost of a five-star helmet is $297. The average for a four-star helmet is $243. And the three-star helmets averaged $208.

Interestingly, the most highly rated helmet on the list, the Scutt Air XP Pro VTD II, is also one of the least expensive, costing $200.

The most popular helmet among the 28 high schools in Maricopa County that responded to the survey was the five-star rated Riddell Revolution Speed, which 17 of the schools use. The five-star Xenith X2 is in use at six schools.

Emerging technology

The concussion issue in football has gained notoriety over recent years and companies that make helmets have responded.

One such corporation is VICIS, which has developed the ZERO1 helmet that is designed to deform and absorb impact, much like an automobile bumper, in order to cushion the brain from a devastating blow.

The ZERO1 is not yet included on Virginia Tech’s list and it has not been adopted by any major football programs after being pulled from trials at the University of Washington and University of Oregon due to complaints about the comfort of the helmet.

It is also likely to be cost prohibitive for high school programs, with a price tag that reportedly will be $1,500 per helmet.

This is far from the first time a company has attempted to think outside of the box in an attempt to make football safer.

In the 1980s and 1990s, San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Steve Wallace and Buffalo Bills safety Mark Kelso were mocked for wearing the ProCap, a large helmet cover believed to add an extra layer of padded protection.

Helmet caps like the ProCap never caught on for game use, in part because of their bulky appearance, but at least one cap brand has become more common at practices for some college and high school football programs.

“There are no mirrors and no girls at practice, so what they look like at practice shouldn’t matter,” said Erin Hanson, owner of Guardian Caps, whose caps are used at major college football programs such as Clemson, Georgia Tech and Iowa State.

Helmet manufacturers and testers face a difficult task. Deviations from player to player and hit to hit make it difficult to pinpoint exactly how and why concussions occur.

“I think a lot of us don’t have the comfort level yet that we probably ought to have,” said Michael Oliver, executive director and general counsel for the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), a nonprofit organization that publishes performance standards and research about equipment.

“There is just so much that we don’t know with regards to why a concussion happens to a particular player on a particular play,” he said.

The impossibility of concussion-free football

Due to its violent nature, football is one of the sports in which athletes are most susceptible to concussions.

According to Head Case, an organization focusing on the prevention of youth concussions in sports, high school football leads all other sports with 64 to 76.8 concussions per 100,000 athletic exposures, which are defined as an athlete participating in an organized practice or game for any length of time.

While new innovations might make a difference in reducing the number of concussions, the laws of physics suggest that concussions are likely to be an ever-present issue in football.

“Will we improve the protection from concussions by enough of an amount that you can measure it?” Oliver asked. “No one is really sure that you can, based on the science.”

Hanson agreed, saying that, while concussions are not preventable through the use of equipment such as his company’s helmet caps, “if you can reduce the impact of that accumulation of all of those sub-concussive hits, that’s beneficial to the player.”

The Sports Concussion Institute estimates that the average impact speed of a football player tackling a stationary player is 25 mph. For context, the same organization estimates the impact speed of a professional boxer’s punch to be only 20 mph.

And players are only getting bigger and faster.

According to data compiled by Alex Bresler at Aragorn Technologies, a firm that provides data analysis, the average NFL offensive lineman drafted in 2013 weighed 310 pounds. The average defensive lineman drafted that year weighed 281 pounds.

By comparison, the average offensive and defensive linemen in the 1975 draft weighed 257 pounds.

And with players becoming bigger and stronger, there are forces created that the human body is not designed to absorb – regardless of equipment.

What can be done

Improvements in helmet technology may not completely eliminate the danger to high school football players, but experts such as Duma believe that it is the most reasonable course of action right now.

And he said the keys to creating better helmets are cushioning impact and reducing the acceleration of a player’s head.

“The helmets that lower head acceleration lower your risk of injury,” he said.

That said, there are other measures that have been suggested to protect young athletes, such as establishing a minimum age to start contact football.

Some have even suggested playing football without helmets, forcing a complete overhaul in how the game would be taught and played. to prevent players from using their heads as weapons.

Erickson, the program coordinator at Barrow, views her experience working with rugby players as an example of what football would be like without helmets.

“I think that they learn how to play safer and how to play without the use of their heads,” she said. However, she also knows the idea as unrealistic.

“Going from (how the game is played) now to not wearing helmets; I don’t know how much benefit it would be, because people are used to playing the way that they are playing,” she said.

Ultimately, the consensus is that the best ways to prevent concussions in high school football is through education of coaches and players about the risks and by coaching proper techniques.

That, in conjunction with improvements in helmet technology, might reduce the risk of head trauma.

In the meantime, Erickson said coaches and players must consider how football could impact them later in life and take it into account on the field.

“They have to think about how it’s going to relate to their lives down the road,” Erickson said. “Think about the future.”