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
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
”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
”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
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
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
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
”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
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
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
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.