A leather helmet worn by Gerald Ford while playing football for Michigan in the 1930's. From Wikimedia Commons.
As the parent of a high school football player who suffered a minor concussion two years ago and a huge football fan, it’s both reassuring and fascinating to observe the advancements being made in helmet technology. Most of us have heard recent stories about how concussions have caused significant health problems for retired professional football players. Most recently, repetitive concussions and concussion related injuries have been blamed for the suicides of former NFL players Junior Seau, Ray Easterling, and Dave Duerson. Seau and Duerson both shot themselves in the chest, with Duerson leaving a note behind indicating that he wanted his brain donated for the study of football related brain injuries. The Seau family recently announced that they would allow researchers to examine the brain of Junior Seau for the same reason. In a recent Sports Illustrated article, the plight of two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Jim McMahon is outlined in heart wrenching detail. A 2007 brain scan revealed that McMahon was experiencing early-onset dementia as a result of at least four documented concussions throughout his career, including the head first body slam that ended his season in 1986 (the photo of this injury in the article is stomach turning). As a result, McMahon has been experiencing both short-term and long-term memory loss, and he’s now experiencing acute, intense headaches that drop him to his knees in a cold sweat.
But while it’s great to know that improvements are being made in helmet safety, can anything be done to separate the game from its gladiator mentality? Most football fans know that the greatest respect is given to players who propel themselves all over the field with reckless abandon. Any talk of changing this aspect of football culture is viewed as outright blasphemy. Many have found solace in the fact that coaches all over the country are focusing on tackling techniques that prevent helmet-to-helmet injuries. Is technique an important part of the overall problem? According to Tim Gray, a physics professor at the University of Nebraska, an average defensive back’s speed combined with his mass can produce around 1600 pounds of force during a tackle. With that amount of force, bad technique can mean not only potential brain injuries, but possibly life-threatening overloads to the spine. The 2012 Annual Survey of Football Injury Research reports that helmet-to-helmet tackling and blocking techniques were the direct cause of 36 deaths and 30 permanent paralysis injuries in 1968. The total elimination of fatalities wasn’t reported until 1990. In response to these deaths in the 1960s, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) was founded. Clearly, there should be a continued focus on safe techniques in addition to advancements in helmet technology.
In terms of measuring helmets for their ability to reduce concussion, that task has been undertaken by Virginia Tech since 2011. Virginia Tech researchers have produced a ranking for helmets utilizing the STAR (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk) system. This ranking involves performing 120 impacts on helmets, and data collected from impacts experienced by players. Most disturbing about the 2011 ratings was that one of the lowest-rated helmets was being used by most players in the NFL. Now, the lowest three rated helmets from the 2011 rankings are off the market.
One example of emerging helmet technology is a helmet designed by Troy Fodemski, an entrepreneur from Colorado Springs, CO. Fodemski, an electrical engineer, has designed a response system in helmets that would release dozens of tiny airbags sequentially to cushion blows to the head. Fodemski’s start-up company, Concussion Mitigation Technologies, LLC, has patented its technology that it says will measure hits, compare data, and administer pressure to the tiny airbags in response to the movement of the brain upon impact. Then there’s a product called the Thermocrown, from a startup company called Thermopraxis and renowned helmet producer Schutt Sports. The Thermocrown is a fitted device inside the helmet that, after a hard hit, receives an injection of cooling gas to lower the head’s temperature to minimize damage. It is essentially an ice pack that can be initiated by training staff in seconds.
Obviously, there would be a number of obstacles leading to implementation and use of these products on the football field, but the concepts are rather exciting. Let’s hope that with continued analysis of helmets on the market and the advancements of new, innovative helmet technology, we can see fewer instances of permanent and lingering brain and spinal injuries.