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Offseason Rant No. 1A: A Followup on Head Trauma

In which the author, with the help of Autoweek Magazine, addresses some of the questions in the comments to Rant No. 1.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The other day I wrote the first of what is almost certain to be a lengthy series of off-season rants. (I’ve got a lot of stuff to get off my chest.) The topic, this time, was Unnecessary Head Trauma. In the post, I suggested the players, who after all are the ones who are going to have to deal with the affects of brain trauma, putting a halt to the practice of congratulating each other for good plays by smacking their helmets and/or butting their heads. (The coaches do it too, for that matter.)

A number of commenters agreed, and some also commented on the quality (or lack thereof) of the typical football helmet, wondering if something better wasn’t available. steeler fever posited the following question:

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.

A day or so later I received an email from someone at Autoweek Magazine, giving an article link about a retired motorcross guy who has been designing football helmets, possibly along the lines of what fever suggested. It is an interesting article, and I recommend reading the whole thing, which can be accessed here. Here are some of the good bits : )

Bill Simpson was a long time finding the National Football League, but it finding him might change football.

The former California drag racer, Indianapolis 500 driver and motorsports safety innovator has created a football helmet that he and others believe could revolutionize the sport.

The short version is, he happened to be introduced in 2010 to Tom Moore, then the Colts’ offensive coordinator. After a long chat, Moore gave him tickets to a game. Simpson went to the game, which happened to be the one in which Austin Collie was hit in the head after catching a pass across the middle and lay unconcious for several minutes on the turf. Simpson later asked Moore if it was a freak accident, and was astonished to discover it was a frequent occurence.

Simpson was appalled, and asked Moore for NFL helmets to test. Moore provided three different sorts, and presumably he was not impressed, because he set to work to design his own.

This didn’t prove easy, as he discovered there was less cross-over between racing and football than he expected. However, he did not give up, and now has a company in partnership with racer Chip Ganassi. Ganassi credits a Simpson-designed helmet with saving his life in a 1984 crash, so he didn’t need a sales pitch to want to invest.

The helmets are called Simpson Ganassi Helmets, and as far as I can tell are only now to the stage of reaching the market. However, Austin Collie was given a prototype to wear during the 2011 season. He did not suffer any concussions. In 2012 he returned to his usual helmet, and was concussed in a preseason game.

As Simpson says, "I can’t make people wear them."

Which brings us to another point made in the comments to my previous post. smerkinb said:

The bigger question to me is why don’t more players seem to care about this type of stuff? Why don’t more o-linemen wear knee braces to prevent injury? Is it a result of a culture of denial? Do player have to keep themselves from thinking about TBI? Do they really not care?

I certainly don’t know the answer. But I have some theories. Here’s what I said to smerkinb:

All excellent questions. When I asked James Harrison why more of the players weren’t wearing CRT in their helmets (the stuff he, and Troy, and Ryan, and about half a dozen others of the Steelers wear which appears to lessen the force of impact) he said, in effect, that unless it was a requirement there would always be those who would choose not to wear it. It makes the helmet a little bit heavier (about 3 ounces) and the guys who haven’t had, as he said, "issues," didn’t want the extra weight.

I suspect there is also some of the macho culture thing. But mainly, I suspect it is a competitive thing. The talent level at the NFL is so very even, and guys are looking for anything to give them a competitive advantage. Knee braces hamper you a bit. Perhaps the extra 3 ounces in your helmet slows you down by a tiny fraction of a second. Therefore, unless everyone has to wear these things, you 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.

However, in light of the Autoweek article, I’m not so sure. It turns out the Simpson Ganassi helmet weighs about half as much as an NFL helmet—about two and a half pounds, versus about five pounds for a typical NFL helmet. (The youth version weighs even less—one pound four ounces.) It looks like at least one of my theories is out the window in that case. (Unless the reduced weight actually makes the player "feel" less safe, which is a possibility.)

There is also the "looks" factor. I remember reading a year or two ago about Ben Roethlisberger’s reluctance to wear the type of NFL-approved helmet which supposedly reduces concussions, as he thought he looked funny in it. News flash to Ben—you already look funny, especially with your Haloti Ngata-scupted nose. You all look funny. Those helmets are not fashion accessories. I’m happy to say Ben overcame his objections and now wears that helmet.

Ryan Clark was also reluctant to wear those helmets, also because of the look, until a couple of concussions in short order last fall convinced him to wear it anyhow. Ryan Clark is a fine-looking man, no doubt, but what I want to know is how the heck anyone is supposed to know that, in ANY kind of a helmet?

Clark also added CRT (the material made by Unequal Technologies) to the better helmet. Tunch Ilkin and Bob Labriola even displayed his usual helmet next to the beefed-up concussion-reduction helmet. It was bigger. They all look funny. Get over it, guys.

So the upshot of this sequel rant is, there seems to be some amount of better technology out there. Nothing is going to be perfect. I would think there is only so much difference any helmet or material is going to make to the effects of a high-speed crash which causes your brain to slosh around in your head. But just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything.

The ball is in your court, gentlemen. If the NFL front office is making any difficulty about wearing non-regulation equipment, they need to have an expidited review process for new technology. But given there are several types of helmets players appear to be allowed to wear, that doesn’t seem to be the sticking point. (After all, Austin Collie was allowed to wear something not even in production yet.)

It would appear the sticking point is the players. At least some of whom are going to be the ones dealing with the effects of traumatic brain injuries after they retire from the NFL, and perhaps even sooner. After all, Chris Henry, a very young player with no history of concussions was found to have CTE lesions in his brain after his death. Perhaps his behavior, including that which led to his death, was at least partially due to CTE.

As James Harrison as well as Bill Simpson said, you can’t make guys wear this. However, those same guys who didn’t have to wear the better protection available will, presumably, be able to add their names to massive lawsuits against the NFL in later life. I’m not trying to blame the victim here. But if they are making an informed choice, it changes the equation to a certain extent.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I believe the NFLPA should study all of the alternatives available and give the players a choice which of them they will wear. None of them, as far as I can tell, have been absolutely proven to work in a peer-reviewed, double-blind study. Very possibly none of them could actually be subjected to that level of proof in a study without concerns that such a study would be unethical. All of them, however, have a reasonable body of anecdotal evidence and some amount of science behind them. Not wearing any of them should not be a choice.

The manufacturer of most of the helmets in this country, who shall remain nameless, might not be happy. As a result, the NFL front offices might not be happy. But if I was the NFL front office, I would be thrilled to have the NFLPA do my dirty work for me. Any such edict by the front offices may possibly be in contradiction to the labor agreement, and would certainly hack off some number of the players it is designed to protect. The NFLPA has no such restrictions, I would presume.

So what’s the hold-up? I vote for a safer, funnier-looking NFL in 2013!