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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?

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.

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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.

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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.”

Today’s helmets come with their own warning labels. (Taylor Ballantyne/Sports Illustrated)

The warning sticker on the back of a helmet. (Taylor Ballantyne/SI)

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.”

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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.”

Helmets have come a long way since this leather version worn by Columbia's Harold Weekes in 1902. (Mary Ann Carter/College Football Hall of Fame)

Helmets have come a long way since this leather version worn by Columbia's Harold Weekes in 1902. (Mary Ann Carter/College Football Hall of Fame)

There is another frontier, on which Guskiewicz will lead the effort at the NFL level. Since 2004, he has recorded and studied more than 370,000 hits to the head -- their frequency, magnitude and location—among UNC football players. Guskiewicz, who serves on both the NFL’s Head, Neck, and Spine Committee and the NFLPA’s Mackey-White Committee, said he expects to begin collecting data on the first NFL team within the next week.

As of last Friday, Guskiewicz said the participation of three NFL teams had been secured and a fourth was being sought, though he declined to say which clubs because of the confidentiality of the study. The goal is voluntary participation from about 25 players on each team, representing a cross-section of positions and roles. Over a one-month period, one new team will be outfitted with this technology per week, and impact data will be collected through the remainder of the season.

Head impacts can be measured and quantified by accelerometers placed in the helmet, mouthguard or an adhesive patch, according to the player’s preference. Guskiewicz hopes some players will consent to wearing two devices, to compare the precision of the systems.

Teams and their medical staffs will not have access to the data during or after games. Guskiewicz and his UNC research team exclusively will manage and analyze the information, though a player can request his own results at the end of the year. Per the CBA, sensors can be used in-game if they’re part of a league-authorized initiative that is also agreed to by the players union.

Guskiewicz, who has advocated the use of head-impact sensors in the NFL for years, said the way in which they are being used at UNC is not the plan for the NFL at the moment. The UNC program developed over a decade, and the allowances and applications at the amateur and professional levels are different. But his research at UNC is an example of the ways sensors can be used in the context of high-level football.

For nearly a decade, North Carolina's helmets have been used to study impact hits to the head. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

For nearly a decade, North Carolina's helmets have been used to study impact hits to the head. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The UNC medical staff has access to the real-time data during a game, and if a player comes to the sideline complaining of headaches, dizziness or balance problems, checking to see if he sustained an impact could be one factor in distinguishing between, for instance, dehydration and a head injury. But Guskiewicz emphasized that impact data is used very infrequently for managing a player during a game and has no effect on the player’s diagnosis or return-to-play timeline.

Some helmet sensor systems, such as Riddell’s InSite Impact Response System, send an alert to the sideline if a certain impact threshold is reached, to signal that the player should be checked for a concussion. But Guskiewicz’s research indicates to him that the concussion threshold is “very elusive”—he’s seen players suffer concussions at 60G of acceleration, and others be uninjured above 160G—so he doesn’t use sensor data in this way. “My biggest fear is that people automatically think this is a concussion diagnostic tool, and it is not. With, like, four exclamation points I want to make that clear,” Guskiewicz said.

Instead, the sensor data has been used at UNC to modify behavior: If a player is observed to be repeatedly sustaining larger impacts to the crown of his head, for instance, coaches will work with him on adjusting his technique. The data can also be used to inform rules changes; Guskiewicz said the NFL’s moving the kickoff up to the 35-yard line in 2011 was backed by UNC research showing that kickoffs resulted in the highest average acceleration of the head on impact of any play.

In the NFL, the first goal is to determine if the use of head-impact sensors is feasible—logistics and player approval are important factors to be considered. If so, the next step would be to determine how a set of data that had never before been mined at the NFL level could better inform the health and safety decisions made in the game.

The results of the pilot program, said Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety policy, “will determine where it goes.” Added Miller, “The concept behind it is probably true of many different issues we look at: If you can measure the extent of the issue we’re discussing, the better able you may be to address it.”

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Perhaps down the line, data from head-impact sensors could suggest the helmet models best-suited for the different demands of each position. And while the STAR rating system is a good start, more research is needed on how different helmet models protect the brain.

“I think if there were definitive science that suggests there is a helmet that is very effective, I’m certain the players would listen,” said Micky Collins, director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program and a consultant to the Steelers. “I just don’t know if we really understand that right now.”

Like every other element of the crusade against concussions, the helmet must be considered in both the long and the short term. The recent surge of research into head injuries may help inform new design ideas for manufacturers’ research and development departments, like the nearly 50-person head protection and development team at Riddell and its parent company, Easton-Bell Sports. Or, maybe some of the materials being called for in the second phase of the GE-NFL Head Health Initiative—“smart materials” such as active polymers that can adapt to sudden impacts—will be part of the next wave of helmet designs.

In the short-term, NFL players are choosing a helmet and strapping it on each Sunday—positive, negative or indifferent about its ability to protect the most important part of their body.