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When Helmet Safety Meets Capitalism

With attention and money increasingly directed toward player safety, SI surveyed equipment insiders and medical outsiders about the growing helmet industry. And the picture they paint, of a destined-to-be-unsafe world where marketing can cloud the science, is concerning.
helmet safety and capitalism

Welcome to the most innovative and complicated corner of the sports world. To a market that's morphing in ways both impactful and uncertain. To a space that is more focused on safety than ever before . . . and yet, insiders insist, not as safe as some might suggest. Welcome to the football helmet industry, where even the highest executives can sympathize when, say, Antonio Brown is unable to make sense of the changing landscape. Where the CEO of one company says, "I'm not aware of another industry like it." Where the NFL's vice president of health and safety policy assesses, yes, there have been gains, "but there's substantial room for improvement." Where a qualified outsider—an expert on traumatic brain injuries—scoffs: "I don't like to talk about helmets, because it's such a f----- up market."

SI spoke with 15 people from inside and outside the industry, ranging from helmet manufacturing CEOs to experts with backgrounds in TBIs, bioengineering and neuroscience. And based on that reporting, today's helmet industry, after a decade defined by outrage over the havoc football has been exposed to wreak on brains, can be summed up by two contradictory observations. The first: There has never been more innovation, leading to advancements in helmets and related technologies, all of it aimed at enhancing player safety. That growth has been spurred by competitive forces, including new entrants into the market; by partnerships with top doctors and scientists in related fields; and by an influx of cash from organizations, including the NFL.

The second: There have never been more unproved, misleading claims about effectiveness in the marketing and selling of these same helmets. (One could argue there was never enough public concern in the past to necessitate such claims.) Of the industry leaders who spoke to SI, 10 agreed that many of the assertions about helmet safety thrown around by today's manufacturers overstate the supporting science. They believe helmet makers have taken what they see as, essentially, a medical device and peddled it more like a consumer product, often positioning certain models as degrees safer than others without acknowledging that in fact they're dealing in shades of unsafeness, that football will always be violent. The more passionate experts in that group compare the helmet industry to the sport of football itself, where safety has been and forever will be secondary to what matters most. Profit.

A quick primer: The bulk of all helmets, across all age levels, are manufactured and sold by one of four major companies. Schutt (on one end of the spectrum, founded 101 years ago), Riddell, Xenith and Vicis (on the other end, founded less than a decade ago). The field has dwindled in recent years, mostly due to a shrinking pool of buyers and to concerns over liability, but also because of existing barriers to entry and economies of scale. Any new entrant would need to be comfortable with the public backlash over football-related head injuries; know that each year fewer and fewer people are playing the sport at youth levels; and muster enough capital to confront impediments that have long hindered competition throughout the market.

Why would anyone wade into that morass? 1: Safety. Everyone says this. 1A: Money, of which there has never been more at stake. Models that cost $150 a decade ago now start closer to $350, with high-end versions approaching $1,000. According to a study by 360 Research Reports, the helmet market will grow by $10 million over the next five years, to $150 million, even as participation declines. (A separate study, by BCC Research, has that figure much higher, at $280 million.) And that doesn't include the selling of the parts that go into helmets—liners and padding and related technologies—all of which can be licensed and sold in other industries to reduce the impact of collisions. In the end, becoming the "safest" provider of helmets and their parts could net any one company hundreds of millions of dollars in profit.

That financial carrot is precisely why so many people working in the field believe that any claims of innovation should undergo more rigorous and scientific scrutiny. "If a company wants to build [helmets] the right way, how do they distinguish themselves from all the noise out there?" asks David Camarillo, an assistant professor of bioengineering who studies brain injuries at Stanford and serves on a board for helmet safety regulations. "And for those who aren't doing it the right way, where's the mechanism to rein that in?"

* * *

Toward the back of Vicis's office in downtown Seattle is a workshop-like space known as the Smash Lab, where a small army of engineers seated nearby tend to wear noise-canceling headphones at their desks while helmets are raised and dropped, again and again, onto the concrete floor. Or are tumbled—crack, crack, crack—in a cement mixer. Or are frozen (recreating Lambeau Field in January) and placed upon a mannequin, whose head is bashed repeatedly with a mechanical arm, all in the name of science.

The cofounder and CEO of Vicis, Dave Marver, knew from the outset that he would have to be forceful in order to break into an industry long in need of a shake-up. Some obstacles he anticipated, such as the mounting evidence that football causes head injuries, leading parents to steer their children toward less violent sports. (The latest data from the National Federation of State High School Associations showed an almost 10% drop in participation over the last decade.) He knew he would have to fight, too, against less demonstrable perceptions, such as the idea that helmets will never prevent concussions. And he knew that when he said all he wanted to do was make football safer, people outside his building would roll their eyes. But other obstacles he never saw coming.

Vicis helmet safety

Vicis opened shop in 2013. They brought in Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach and the Packers' Aaron Rodgers as investors, formed an advisory board (including an epidemiologist, a four-star Army general, two neurosurgeons, an NFL team doctor and a mechanical engineer) and built a separate "coalition" of advisers (Seattle QB Russell Wilson, 49ers great Jerry Rice). Even then, it would be four years before a player wore a Vicis helmet in an NFL game. In '19 the company says 125 players, about 7% of the league, wear its product.

SI spoke to one high-ranking industry insider who summed up the challenges that an upstart helmet company like Vicis faces in breaking into what he calls "one of the most complex and unusual environments one could imagine." That world, the helmet insider tells SI, and many in the industry agree, is built largely around long-established contractual relationships between helmet companies and teams, universities and organizations. From 1989 through 2013, for instance, the NFL held a sponsorship deal with Riddell, and while players could wear other companies' helmets, most stuck to the league-affiliated brand. Today, many youth organizations—Pop Warner, USA Football and the American Youth Football Association, among others—still have similar arrangements, some of them exclusive. And that exclusivity can restrict the likes of Vicis from reaching a massive number of middle schools and high schools, where 360 Research Reports suggest 81.9% of all helmets are sold. At conferences and trade shows for these organizations, only exclusive helmet partners can present.

Vicis struggled, too, to break in with equipment managers, who serve as power brokers when it comes to deciding which helmet a team will embrace, at any level. "The relationship between those managers and the big helmet companies is one of the most important and, at times, insidious features of this industry that no one really understands," says SI's industry insider, suggesting, too, that "companies' relationships with these guys can create all sorts of means to influence their decisions." The insider points out, for instance, that helmet sales reps often have open access to the equipment and locker rooms of the teams they've partnered with. In a more regulated world, those reps would pitch instead to team physicians and athletic trainers. (SI ran this general characterization by three equipment managers who currently make helmet decisions for college or pro football teams, and they all agreed, echoing the sentiment articulated by one such team employee: "The equipment manager cartel needs to be broken up.")

Vicis helmet safety

SI's insider found it strange that teams would leave these decisions solely to equipment personnel with no medical or scientific backgrounds, when those same franchises employ neurosurgeons and trainers with educations in science and medicine. Without the expertise to inform decisions about changing helmet providers, many of those managers worry about the potential fallout of veering from an established brand. Imagine the scrutiny if, say, a team's starting quarterback were to suffer a concussion wearing a newer model.

Bigger picture: Such long-standing relationships with equipment managers position established helmet companies to sell bundled goods and services to teams, upping the scale of business. Such a package might include helmets and helmet reconditioning (a process in which used helmets are retested and recertified following each season), as well as other equipment, such as knee and shoulder pads. And if a company, like Vicis, isn't positioned to bring in all of those extras, there's no opportunity for a price break. Capitalism in a nutshell.

"But what," asks the industry insider, "does any of that have to do with safety?"

* * *

Stefan Duma had a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and was studying how to protect people in car crashes and from IED explosions when he got a call in 2009 from the equipment manager for Virginia Tech's football team, who wanted Duma to test every helmet on the market. Duma signed up and realized quickly, "Wow, there's a big difference [between helmets]." And yet, he says, "everything was sold as equal, when that wasn't the case."

Over the next two years Duma developed a battery of 120 tests, which he distilled down to a digestible rating for a given helmet, between one and five stars. To kick things off, he bought one of every model on the market. The first time he plugged those helmets into his test, one model failed to even register on the scale, and only one achieved five stars. (For context: Duma tests for, among other things, the lessening of g-forces. And here the five-star helmet cut them below 50 g, whereas the starless helmet was closer to 100 g. A "dramatic" difference.)

Eventually Duma developed similar rating systems for youth football, flag football, hockey and bicycle helmets, and he published his findings in peer-review journals, choosing not to align with any company or product. (The NFL, meanwhile, put his findings on posters and hung them in locker rooms.) His ratings gave helmet makers a system to work within and benchmarks to strive for, and they led to seemingly safer models, including, today, 18 different five-star-rated helmets.

Critics, though, point to the reasonable possibility that a range exists within any star rating. (What if the 18th-best five-star helmet was significantly worse than the best five-star one? Camarillo asks. Wouldn't consumers want to know the difference?) They also suggest these ratings can be—and are—manipulated to portray a helmet as significantly more safe than what science can verify. With such sizable profits at stake, it's not surprising to hear rival helmet makers accusing one another of designing products with the purpose of passing such tests—but accuse they do.

Six separate helmet-world insiders point to the same example of a five-star-rated model that was built so large that no football player would ever actually wear it on the field. (One can only guess what sort of marketing goal that would achieve.)

"These tests are really good," says Marver, but "they can be gamed." SI's anonymous insider relays the story of one manufacturer who took a three-star helmet, made a few tweaks in the lab and emerged in two hours with a five-star-worthy model. "It was not less safe, but it wasn't 40% or 60% better."

Camarillo points to a test created by the NFL and the NFLPA as today's best differentiator between helmets—but even there he's wary. "The first year [that test was around] the fine print said something to the effect of, 'None of the helmets in the top-performing group have any statistically significant difference,'" he notes. That language has since changed, "but the NFL still [claims some models are] better than others."

To many on the inside, these safety rankings are emblematic of an industry that aspires to be better, and in most cases is better—but not as much as helmet makers suggest. Which leads to the so-far-insurmountable hurdle scientists in this field continually go back to: While science can verify the reduction of impact forces on a helmet, no scientific study has yet shown that a helmet can reduce impact forces on the brain contained within. Any suggestion otherwise, to use a phrase shared by three experts in the field, requires "creative marketing."

One helmet manufacturer, for example, claims to have "the most advanced absorption system" for one of its models, which scientists tell SI would be impossible to prove. Another company flat-out declares one of its models "the most advanced helmet in the game." That model does not top either of the prominent ratings systems.

In the end, says Scott Anderson, COO of the neurotech company SyncThink and the head athletic trainer at Stanford from 2007 to '17, all helmet producers are "pretty similar. They're sales and marketing machines, with various forms of science, credibility and backing."

Count Camarillo among those who think change here has to be drastic—like treating helmets as medical devices and handing over regulation to the Food and Drug Administration. "If the FDA were involved," he says, "there's no way they would permit companies to market helmets [the way they do] with the current level of evidence."

Confusion, at least, is a widely shared sentiment in the field. "I can't tell what's safer," says the expert on traumatic brain injuries. "That's one thing I've accepted."

* * *

Ultimately, the problems faced by the helmet industry may not be solved by a helmet company at all. It could be that safety hinges on, say, the way a helmet attaches to a head. Tomorrow's version could look the same, but be safer on the inside, in its parts.

Enter someone like Shawn Springs. Of the "several" concussions he suffered over 13 years as an NFL cornerback, he most vividly remembers the aftermath of the one in Washington, against the Eagles, on a Sunday night in 2004. He describes waking up on the field, barely breathing, teammates standing over him. "I got hit so hard they didn't even put me on Jacked Up," he jokes of the old ESPN lowlight reel. "It was bad, man."

Shawn Springs helmet safety

Springs's experience in the helmet safety field: 13 years as an NFL cornerback.

Five years later, out of football, Springs decided he wanted to help make the game safer, and he started by studying the helmet industry. He tried to understand why the technology had changed so little in the previous decades—his father, Ron, had played running back in the NFL from 1979 through '86 with pretty much the same helmet Shawn did. "Think about how much a Honda Accord has changed in 30 years," he says. "You wouldn't even recognize it. Seat belts, air bags, back-up cameras—all better, in the name of safety. These helmets, they look the same."

The more closely Springs studied the landscape, though, the more disconnect he saw between the scientists who wanted helmet safety and the manner in which helmets were being marketed. Instead, he found the most promising work was happening outside of the industry—in military and auto tech—and being applied back to football equipment. Which is how Springs came to enter a problematic market through a side door, creating not a helmet company but, essentially, a parts company ("applied science," he says) called Windpact.

Springs hired engineers, scientists and even a Hollywood costume designer who worked on Black Panther and Thor, and eventually Windpact's products won multiple grants at the NFL's Tech Challenge contest—a glorified science fair, essentially, backed by tens of millions of dollars in the league's Head Health Initiative. One of those products, an impact liner system called Crash Cloud that uses restricted air flow and foam in helmets across various sports (as well as in other protective gear), has since been licensed by Schutt for its Air XP Pro Q10 helmet, which retails for $500.

The hope for Springs—and for others in the helmet space but not necessarily in the helmet industry—is that with better ingredients football safety can advance much in the way car safety has, improving as bumper or seat-belt tech moves forward. Bolstered by NFL grants and by deals like the $600,000 Department of Defense contract that Springs recently cut to develop padding for combat helmets, companies like Windpact can innovate from the outside, largely sidestepping a market suffering from conflicting capitalist and medical motivations.

One can imagine, someday, an ideal scenario (or at least something far less messy than the current landscape) where innovations geared toward far-off battlefields or operating rooms are showcased on Sunday afternoons. Where football helmets are regulated with more scrutiny, subject to rigorous clinical trials. Where they're marketed with claims backed by science.

Where safety is a goal, not a marketing tool.