Better helmets may reduce concussions for young athletes


Football has a little bit of everything: Concussions, athleticism, brute force, injuries, excitement and, oh, did I mention concussions?

Injuries have always been a part of sports, but steps have always been taken to help protect the combatants. Compare the football uniform of 2011 to the 1940s and I daresay you’ll see a stark contrast.

All of that is good, and yet serious injuries, particularly concussions, continue to plague the sport. Most coaches may not teach helmet-to-helmet contact, and yet it happens all too often. Why? Maybe because not everyone playing football take seriously the possible result of such contact.

It brings to mind the nonsensical comments fans make to officials: “If you don’t get control of the game, someone is going to get hurt.” The truth is, officials can enforce penalties when rules are broken, but they can’t prevent a rule from being broken, and they can’t keep a player from getting hurt.

As soon as someone talks about making football safer, there will be those who are afraid that safety proponents are trying to change tackle football to flag football. However, common sense suggests we do what we can to make the game as safe as possible when the equipment is available.

I read on ESPN.com that the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, which certifies sports equipment, has been AWOL on the issue of helmets and concussions.

That seems strange, considering the helmet is the single most important piece of equipment concerning concussions.

Hopefully, that will change following research at Virginia Tech. Researchers have produced the first brand-by-brand, model-by-model ranking for the likely concussion-resistance of helmets.

“A star-rating system modeled on crash-safety rankings for automobiles, the rankings clearly identify the best and worst helmets,” said Gregg Easterbrook on ESPN.com.

The rankings suggest which helmets provide the best protection and provide the least. Wouldn’t you want your son to wear a helmet that is considered the most safe? The chilling part of the study is that the second-lowest-rated helmet was the most common helmet in the NFL last season. The VSR4 is widely worn in college and high school, too.

“Immediately after the Virginia Tech findings were released, Riddell advised football teams to stop using the VSR4, long the company’s best-seller,” said Easterbrook.

But are safe helmets affordable? Stefan Duma, the Virginia Tech engineer who led the rankings project, says there is no correlation between helmet price and safety.

Easterbrook wrote, “The lowest ranked helmet, the Adams A2000, costs $200, while the four-star Schutt DNA retails for $170. The DNA looks like the best value on the market — nearly as good in safety ranking as the top-rated Riddell Speed, but costs about $75 less. This can matter if you’re buying 100 helmets for a high school or small college.”

Guess who isn’t thrilled with Duma’s research? If you guessed some in the football establishment, some manufacturers, some general managers and athletic directors, you’re right. For what it’s worth, Easter­brook points out that in 2010, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rogers, who would eventually become the Super Bowl starting quarterbacks, sustained concussions wearing the outdated VSR4. When they returned to action, both players switched to improved helmets made by Schutt.

Let’s be clear: No helmet can prevent a concussion, but having the right helmet at least lowers the risk. When you see a helmet flying off, it most likely means the helmet isn’t properly fitted. Coaches need to teach players to “see what you hit” because it’s more dangerous to get hit with your head down.

TV commentators need to stop praising helmet-to-helmet contact. As Easterbrook writes, “If the NFL were to make ejection for helmet-to-helmet hits an officiating ‘point of emphasis,’ player behavior would change fast.”


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