NFL, manufacturers agree there’s no perfect helmet

As Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson prepared to

return last weekend from his second concussion in less than a year,

he was given a special, new helmet. While he hoped to be better

protected, the helmet’s maker certainly wouldn’t – and couldn’t –

guarantee Jackson will be completely safe from brain injuries.

The truth is, no helmet can provide that sort of absolute

protection in the NFL, where there’s an average of 1 1/2 to two

concussions in each game.

In a series of interviews with The Associated Press,

representatives of the NFL, its players’ union and the four

equipment companies that make every helmet worn in the league all

agreed there’s no football helmet – in production or on drawing

boards – that can eliminate concussions. And there might never be

one.

The NFL acknowledges that the lack of a perfect helmet

contributed to its decision in recent weeks to use hefty fines and

the threat of suspensions to cut down on dangerous hits. It’s also

why the league’s head, neck and spine medical committee is holding

a two-day meeting next month to look into new ways to test and

design helmets.

”A concussion-proof helmet? So far, there’s nothing to that

effect,” said Ray Anderson, the NFL’s executive vice president of

football operations. ”I don’t know if (manufacturers) could ever

convince us or assure us that a helmet that would absolutely

prevent concussions is doable. I haven’t heard such a thing.”

Right now, the helmet makers know they can’t make such

claims.

”I don’t think there’ll ever be anything that’s a

concussion-proof football helmet. I’ve heard that term thrown

around, but in the helmet world, with today’s technology, that’s

not achievable,” said Thad Ide, vice president of research and

development at Riddell.

”It’s important to understand that there’s a limit to how much

helmets can do,” Ide continued. ”And player behavior, player

education, rules changes – all of those things can have as much, or

more, of a benefit in reducing the risk of concussion.”

Helmets used in the NFL – and NCAA or high school football, for

that matter – are supposed to pass a test developed by the National

Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), a

nonprofit corporation. The group’s website notes that it

establishes ”voluntary test standards,” that ”manufacturers test

their own helmets” and that ”NOCSAE does not possess a

surveillance force to ensure compliance with the standards.”

The testing method established in the 1970s remains essentially

the same today. The goal then was to prevent sudden death, skull

fractures and brain bleeding in football – not stop concussions as

they are defined now – and there’s universal agreement that goal

has been achieved. But NOCSAE says it would like to find a way to

update the standard and testing to better account for concussions,

once more is known about the forces that cause them.

”We can’t make a change to our standard until, No. 1, we know

it’s going to be beneficial, and No. 2, that the change that we

would incorporate wouldn’t make the rest of the standard less

protective or that the change wouldn’t increase the risk of injury

in another area,” executive director Mike Oliver said. ”Science

doesn’t know the answer.”

Concussions occur when the brain moves inside the skull from an

impact or a whiplash effect. Some compare it to the movement of a

yolk within a shell if an egg were tossed out of a window – yes,

wrapping the egg in bubble-wrap might keep the shell from cracking,

but it wouldn’t stop the yolk from jostling.

”I don’t think this is a different set of problems than car

manufacturers face when developing air bags or car seats for

children,” Schutt Sports president and CEO Robert Erb said.

”I can’t have the helmet weigh too much, because then I’m

putting stress loads on the neck and I’m creating a whole set of

different problems. I can’t put in too much padding, because then

I’m creating a heat-related issue. I can’t make it too thin. I

can’t make it too thick,” said Erb, whose company made Jackson’s

old and new helmets.

Mark Lovell, founding director of the University of Pittsburgh

Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program, said a

concussion-proof helmet is not ”a realistic goal, because you

can’t put a helmet on the brain.”

”The helmet sits on the skull, and the brain moves inside the

skull, and that’s actually what causes the concussion,” said

Lovell, who has served as a consultant to the NFL and other major

sports leagues.

Factors that play into whether concussions happen include

whether a player took previous hits to the head that day; how

hydrated he is; where on the helmet he gets hit; whether the player

saw the hit coming and was able to tense neck muscles so his head

spins less violently.

And the list goes on.

”I don’t personally think, in my own mind, the helmet is ever

going to be the solution to concussions. But I think they can be

made better in the future, just like the current ones are made

better than they were in the past,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, a

clinical professor of neurosurgery at the Boston University School

of Medicine, senior adviser to the NFL’s concussion committee and

NOCSAE vice president.

The NFL’s Anderson said it’s ”exactly right” to make a

connection between the current state of helmet technology and the

efforts by the league to increase enforcement of rules governing

illegal hits to the head, including fines of up to $75,000.

”It’s very clear that wearing a helmet, in and of itself, is

not protecting our guys from concussions and other trauma,” said

Anderson, who makes initial decisions on punishment for NFL

safety-rule violations, ”so to the extent that we can do more by

aggressively enforcing our rules and getting illegal techniques and

hits to the head out of the game, we have an obligation to do

that.”

The NFL and NFLPA concussion committees, helmet makers, the

Department of Defense and leading scientists will participate in

discussions Dec. 8-9 to: examine whether there are new materials

that could improve helmets; determine if sensors should be used in

helmets, mouthguards or earpieces worn by NFL players to measure

impacts of various kinds of hits to the head; review the NFL’s

return-to-play guidelines established in December 2009, including

considering whether sideline tests used to determine if a player

has a concussion should be standardized so each team uses the same,

mandated neurological exam.

”We’re turning over every stone you could imagine,” said

Richard Ellenbogen, chairman of the University of Washington

medical school’s department of neurological surgery and co-chair of

the NFL’s head, neck and spine medical committee.

The NFL says it has invested $10 million on the issue since

2006, including $6 million on concussion- and helmet-related

research and education.

”We certainly won’t get a helmet that reduces concussions,”

said Thom Mayer, medical director for the players’ union, ”unless

we try.”

The helmet makers say they are trying.

Boston University’s Cantu quickly rattled off advances such as

Riddell’s increased width, Schutt’s new cushioning materials, and

what he called Xenith’s ”rather dramatic” change from traditional

foams to air-cell padding inside helmets.

No matter what advancements have come about, some NFL players

sound skeptical about just how much protection helmets can

provide.

”They’re making tons of different styles of helmets, and I wear

the old, traditional style. I kind of feel, like, if you’re going

to get knocked out, you’re going to get knocked out,” Indianapolis

Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers said. ”I don’t really think the

helmet matters when it comes to you having a concussion or

not.”

Said Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu: ”I’ve heard

players try out the new helmets, get concussions and say, ‘I’m

going back to the old one.”’

Each player is allowed to choose which brand he wears. The NFL

estimates that 75 percent of helmets used this season are made by

Riddell, which has had a licensing/sponsorship agreement with the

league since 1990; 23 percent are made by Schutt, 1 to 2 percent by

Xenith, and a handful by Adams USA. Rawlings, which stopped making

football helmets more than two decades ago, is returning to the

business in 2011 and has partnered with the Cleveland Clinic for

concussion research.

According to Schutt, Eagles Pro Bowler Jackson had been wearing

one of its helmet models that went out of production about two

years ago. Then came Oct. 17, a Sunday filled with some

particularly vicious hits across the NFL, including the shot

Jackson took from Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson that

left both men on the ground, motionless. Jackson and Robinson both

ended up with concussions; each missed his team’s next game;

Robinson appealed the $50,000 fine levied by the league for the

hit.

D.J. MacLean, Schutt’s director of sports marketing, traveled to

Philadelphia last week to check on Jackson and his new helmet –

outfitted, unlike his old Schutt, with a material the company says

does a much better job of withstanding impacts.

”A lot more cushioning. It felt good,” Jackson said Friday

after practice. ”I’ll definitely use it again.”

Still, MacLean will be the first to tell you, that material

can’t ensure those impacts don’t cause concussions.

”For somebody to say that there is such a thing as a

concussion-proof helmet is incorrect. It’s a misinterpretation.

Football is a collision sport. When it’s played well, it’s a

violent collision sport. Concussions will happen,” MacLean said.

”The only way to not get one is to sit in the stands.”

AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia, AP Sports

Writer Michael Marot in Indianapolis, and AP freelancer Chris

Adamski in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.