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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.”
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