Better Living Through Chemistry, or, Are There Any Solutions in Sight for Concussions?
The subject of head trauma has fascinated and disturbed me ever since the evidence first began making its way into the public consciousness several years ago. At that time I wrote an article for Behind the Steel Curtain on the subject, and one of the comments, from none other than Steeler Fever, went like this:
I had a 69 GMC pickup in which I got rear ended. It didn’t do much damage to my truck but it knocked the heck out of me. Later on I learned about how modern vehicles have crumple zone that absorb the shock of a collision and lessen the impact on the the individuals in the automobile.
I wonder if anyone has looked at some kind of crumple material/structure for a football helmet?
I doubt such a helmet would last an entire season and might have to be replaced often. Just brainstorming.
As it turned out, fever was onto something. A few days later I received an email from someone at Autoweek Magazine touting an article about a helmet design. I dutifully clicked on the link, and what I found was pretty interesting.
The designer in question is named Bill Simpson, a former race driver and “motorsports safety innovator.” He happened to meet the Colts’ offensive coordinator, Tom Moore, who gave Simpson tickets to a game. While Simpson was at the game, Austin Collie was concussed. Simpson asked Moore if this was a freak accident. He was astonished to find it was a normal occurrence.
Simpson acquired some NFL helmets to test, and after looking at the three different kinds then in use, Simpson set out to design his own. Simpson had long been designing helmets for racers, including Chip Ganassi, who credited a Simpson helmet for saving his life in a crash in the mid-80s.
Simpson and Ganassi formed a partnership to promote the football helmets Simpson was working on. He didn’t find it as simple as he expected, though, as the needs for a football helmet and a racing helmet are more different than he anticipated. He kept at it, though, and came up with a prototype which was given to Austin Collie to wear for the 2011 season.
Collie did not suffer any concussions that season. However, he ditched the helmet in favor of his usual one at the end of the 2011 season, and was concussed in a 2012 preseason game. As Simpson says, “I can’t make people wear them.”
One of the things I’ve encountered over and over when researching this subject is the reluctance of NFL players to wear something other than what they are accustomed to. Back in 2012 I was invited to a press conference held by a company called Unequal Technologies. They had developed a material which they believed would reduce concussions.
It isn’t sport-specific. It isn’t, relatively speaking, expensive or heavy. And it wasn’t originally developed for sports applications at all.
It’s called CRT (Concussion Reduction Technology,) and it is a sandwich of military-grade kevlar and a foam which disperses energy. The sports applications are quite recent. The first NFL player to wear it was Michael Vick, who wore a vest, adapted from the military style bullet-proof vests, so he could play a week after breaking his ribs.
One of the players at the conference, James Harrison, also used this material. After his orbital bone was broken in a game in 2011 he looked around for some additional protection. He read about Vick, looked into the material, and was one of the first NFL players to wear it in his helmet. He was impressed with it immediately, and said he hasn’t had any “issues” since he began using it.
During the question-and-answer session, Harrison was asked by a long time Steelers beat writer about whether he had ever sustained a concussion, since he had never appeared on an injury report as being concussed. His answer was strangely reminiscent of Troy Polamalu’s remarks when asked the same question the previous year. After hemming and hawing a bit, Polamalu admitted that if you use the League’s current definition of concussion, he had probably sustained—well—”a lot. Probably in the double digits.”
The presenters claimed that, at least at that point in time, 31% of concussed players were sent back into the game. (This was across all sports.) I wonder how they derived this figure, being as it must be pretty difficult to get hard data on such a subject. Nonetheless, we’ve seen in the past few weeks that despite the presence of a “spotter” and of unaffiliated medical personnel there are still players going back out on the field, or never leaving in the first place, who are concussed. As the Seahawks/Steelers game demonstrates, unless a player self-reports, some instances of concussions will never be caught, even with all the supposed safeguards.
But obviously preventing concussions is far preferable to dealing with them properly once they occur. As I understand it, there is no way to completely prevent concussions in a contact sport. The concussion is caused by the brains being knocked around inside the skull, resulting in what is essentially a big bruise. However, materials which absorb some of the shock can at least mitigate the damage.
The standard football helmet was developed to replace leather helmets, with the aim of preventing skull fractures. It was quite successful at this, as there have been no skull fractures since the 1980s. The leather helmet itself has an interesting story, though, as told by The Atlantic:
It didn’t take long for people to figure out that football was dangerous. From close to the beginning of American football, innovations in helmets were associated with the risk of devastating head injuries. Here, in an early demonstration of a leather football helmet, the presenter introduces the invention as “an attempt to prevent fatal injuries in football.” He then puts the helmet on, lays down, and lets players kick him in the head.
Here is the video:
The article continues:
According to Smithsonian, one of the clearest origin stories of the football helmet features an admiral who wanted to play in an Army-Navy game, but “had apparently been kicked and hit in the head so many times, his doctor told him that another hard impact could lead to ‘instant insanity.'” To extend his football career, he wore a leather helmet.
The article continues with another story about the kind and caring NFL:
In the late 1980s, Mark Kelso, another player who had hit his head one too many times, started wearing a new type of head protection onto the field: an invention called the ProCap, a sort of helmet for the helmet. It sat on top of a player’s normal helmet and provided another layer of protection made of a half an inch of urethane. According to early studies on test dummies, heads inside a ProCap jolted 30 percent less than those without. As awkward as it looked, the device started gaining popularity among players, until, as Bloomberg reported in 2013, the NFL’s concussion committee started squashing its use in the 1990s.
According to the Bloomberg report, in 1996 the concussion committee sent a memo to players saying that “standard helmet manufacturer’s warranty may be negated or modified by the use of the ProCap,” and that the cap put them at risk for “catastrophic neck injuries, including possible death.” The makers of the ProCap, of course, say that’s not true.
So there clearly has been some knowledge, for a long time, about the deleterious effects of concussions. But the players themselves have mostly been fairly unconcerned, at least until very recently, and most players have apparently resisted wearing alternative helmets which provide more protection. This seems truly bizarre to me.
One of the speakers at the press conference I attended was the mother of a high school football player who sustained a concussion the previous year. Her husband searched the internet for something to make him safer when he returned to playing, and he found CRT. The comment which really got my attention was from the son—he said once he started wearing the pads inside his helmet, he didn’t have headaches after games anymore.
It turns out this is extremely common for players at all levels of the game. James Harrison made the same comment, noting “The league is mandating next year that we wear thigh and knee pads. I don’t know how many people’s careers have been ended on a thigh or knee bruise. We have guys now that are 30, 31 years old that are having to quit the game because they have severe headaches.” Harrison went on to say that he doesn’t have headaches now after games, and said that if his kids want to play a sport, he will see to it they use this padding.
Charlie Batch was also in attendance, and mentioned that after Harrison’s experience “about a half dozen [Steelers] players are using the pads.” I asked Harrison why on earth only a half dozen other Steelers were using the material when he had found it so helpful—what was the resistance?
He said, “Well, I really don’t know—it’s a personal choice—a lot of guys don’t want to wear it because it makes your helmet a little bit heavier. Some of the guys, they haven’t had any issues yet, they haven’t been concussed. For me, if something works, I’m gonna use it. If you tell me if I play with a snake, if it bites me and I go out the next day and have a great game, I’m going to play with a snake every Saturday night.”
The weight in question is about three ounces. Harrison noted he wouldn’t care if it weighed a pound more, because of the increased sense of security he gets from having it in his helmet.
However, in light of the Autoweek article, I’m not so sure weight is the issue. The Simpson-Ganassi helmet weighs about half as much as a standard NFL helmet—about two and a half pounds, versus about five pounds for a typical helmet. I suppose it’s possible the reduced weight actually makes the player “feel” less safe. But the main issue seems to be the look.
Several years ago I read that Ben Roethlisberger was reluctant to wear the type of NFL-approved helmet which supposedly reduces concussions, as he thought he looked funny in it. News flash to NFL players—you all look funny. Helmets are not fashion accessories. I’m happy to say Ben overcame his objections and now wears one of the alternate helmets. I couldn’t confirm this anywhere, but according to a caller to Joe Starkey’s radio program the other day Ben wears a Schutt helmet, with a Riddell sticker slapped on it. Riddell has also developed their own concussion-reducing helmet.
A researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond is working on the idea that magnets in helmets could reduce the force. It sounds very new-agey, but it isn’t, as reported by Science News:
Adding magnets to football helmets could reduce the risk of concussions, new research suggests. When two players collide, the magnets in their helmets would repel each other, reducing the force of the collision.
“All helmet design companies and manufacturers have the same approach, which is to try to disperse the impact energy after the impact’s already occurred,” neuroscientist Raymond Colello said November 15 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.
The magnets, he says, would put a brake on the impact before it happens.
The idea hasn’t been tested yet in helmets with real players, said Judy Cameron, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh. “But a lot of thought has gone into it, and the data that was shown about the ability of the magnets to actually repel each other looked extremely promising.”
On the field, football players can run at nearly 20 miles per hour and can experience up to 150 g’s of force upon impact. Concussions readily occur at impacts greater than 100 g’s. Every year there are 100,000 concussions at all levels of play among the nearly 1.2 million people who play football in the United States.
Colello, of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, is testing magnets made in China from the rare-earth element neodymium. They are the most powerful commercially available magnets and weigh about one-third of a pound each (football helmets weigh from 3.5 to 5.5 pounds). When placed one-fourth of an inch away from each other, two magnets with their same poles face-to-face exert nearly 100 pounds of repulsive force.
You can read more about the research in the article. The difficulty with this approach is, everyone has to have the magnets in their helmets or it doesn’t work, since the whole point is the repelling action of the two magnets. It would presumably take some getting used to as well.
But it seems to me there are a lot of different possibilities out there. If the NFL doesn’t want to see football go the way of boxing—and if the NFLPA (player’s association) doesn’t want the big paydays for star players to be endangered—it seems to me it behooves both entities to embark upon a large-scale study of all the technology. You could do it with crash test dummies with sensors inside the skulls. Figure out what works, what doesn’t work, and whether there are things which work better for direct impact and for rotational force (when the brain gets twisted around inside from a side impact.)
When you find the best solution—or determine that a combination of solutions, say magnets in one of the concussion-reducing helmets, or whatever, would be most effective—mandate it.
I suspect part of the issue is fear of losing a competitive advantage. The talent level at the NFL is very even, and guys are looking for anything to give them a competitive advantage. Knee braces hamper you a bit. Perhaps an extra three ounces in your helmet slows you down by a tiny fraction of a second. Therefore, unless everyone has to wear these things, players don’t want to risk any reduction in effectiveness. In my mind, it is the responsibility of the player’s association to require them. It would come better from them (in terms of acceptance by the players) than from the league.
But until both the NFLPA and the NFL stop giving lip service to the issue and start really caring about the health and well-being of all players, whether they are offensive linemen, special teams players, or star quarterbacks, nothing is going to change.