Study calls into question football helmet safety

Published on Wed, Nov 10, 2010 by By Jerry Huls

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Caleb Johnson’s recollection isn’t clear. For Borderite fans who watched, it will be etched in their memory.

“I don’t remember too much,” Johnson strained to recall. “I saw the lineman pull and I moved up to fill the spot and I got hit behind the ear. I was out before I hit the ground.”

Johnson lay motionless, dazed with tingling in his extremities after a wicked helmet to helmet hit in a game against Mount Baker earlier this year. He would remain on the Borderite football field for almost 40 minutes while paramedics and training staff carefully prepared him for transport to St. Joseph hospital.

“I couldn’t tell you how long I was down,” Johnson confessed. “I remember voices but it (only) felt like five minutes before they put me in the ambulance.”

Johnson was diagnosed with a severe grade-three concussion with neck strain, and he has not been on the field since. The recovery process has been just as surreal for Johnson and has included blurry vision, nausea and severe headaches that lasted the better part of a week.

An October 21 report by the New York Times, coming simultaneously with the National Football League’s crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits, has focused scrutiny on the manufacturers of football helmets in regard to the rise of concussions in the sport.

The report notes that there have been no significant changes in safety standards for helmets since 1973 and that those standards were compiled by a consortium primarily funded by the helmet manufacturers themselves.

According to the Times, helmets, both new and used, have never been tested against the forces that cause concussions. Specifications were originally designed to prevent skull fractures.

Former Blaine football star Caleb Statham is familiar with the concussion scenario. In consecutive years, Statham, who currently runs the scout team as a redshirt at the University of Montana, was sidelined with minor concussions, including a game where he was running roughshod over Lynden to the tune of 198 yards.

“In the Lynden game, he went back in and tried to play,” said his mother, Michelle Statham, “but then he told the coaches that he had lost half of his vision.”

Prudent minds prevailed and Statham was pulled out of the game. The data supports such proactive care. According to a study published by the Journal of Athletic Training, Dr. Frederick O. Mueller of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill states that football players who sustain a concussion are three times more likely to sustain a second concussion, a condition called second-impact syndrome. The syndrome can have a 50 percent mortality rate.

On the surface, such an examination of the ferocity and graveness of such injuries can be both chilling and daunting.

Since 1945, there has been a football related fatality every year through 1999 with the exception of 1990. In that time, there were 712 deaths in football, 70 percent of those were head injuries. Over 250,000 concussions occur annually in high school football.

Despite the Time’s report though, strides have been made in the technology to prevent concussions. However, the one that seems to have the most success has never caught on, particularly in professional football, and the reasons seem to be primarily financial and aesthetic.

The Pro Cap, designed by A.E. Straus, was first introduced on the sports scene by Buffalo Bills’ safety Mark Kelso in the ‘90s. A soft cover that transcends the helmet, the Pro Cap provides a larger distance from impact point to the skull, dramatically reducing the risk of concussion. Kelso had suffered multiple concussions and was looking at early retirement.

He credits the Pro Cap with extending his career by allowing him to continue to play with the aggressiveness he was accustomed to without fear of re-injury. He acknowledged that its appearance, which makes the helmet look odiously bulbous, was a hindrance, stating that his wife fell down laughing when he first showed it to her.

He noted that former all-pro quarterback Boomer Esiason once stepped to the line of scrimmage and, upon seeing Kelso’s protective apparatus, began laughing at him as he called signals. Kelso suspects this is the primary reason that the Pro Cap has not gotten more use in pro football.

Superstars like Steve Young and Troy Aikman, both of whom had careers plagued with concussions, may have been reluctant to wear it because of its affect on their marketability. Steve Wallace of the San Francisco 49ers and Randy Dixon of the Indianapolis Colts also used the Pro Cap during their professional careers. Riddell had been marketing its Revolution design for football helmets in response to the need for greater concussion safety.

Reacting to a study sponsored by NFL Charities that showed concussions on the field more often occurred from side impacts to the head, Riddell’s new design is one of the most significant changes in the style and structure to helmets in the modern era.

Adams USA has also tweaked its design with its Pro Elite style helmet. However, while these new designs seem to be responding to the greater awareness of concussions, they might turn out to be too cost prohibitive for most high schools.

The Riddell Revolution checks in with a $244 price tag while the Pro Elite costs $223. Schutt Sports, which produces the ION 4D is the helmet that has seen the least design change and is the least expensive coming in at $153. The improvements that the Revolution and the Pro Elite have made represent an average of $20 to $40 increase per player.

At smaller or less affluent high schools, this can be a significant financial challenge. The University of Tennessee has already started advocating for the Pro Elite, where 33 of their 70 players are using the new model.

Blaine high school has a little more than 100 football helmets. Less than five are made by Riddell.

“We have purchased over 60 new Schutt helmets over the past four years from Pro Stock Athletic Supply in Bellingham,” Blaine head football coach Jay Dodd said in an email. “Each helmet must be sent in to be reconditioned every three years to companies that are certified. This reconditioning process evaluates each helmet to assure its safety. We send in 30 plus each year for reconditioning.”

The Journal of Athletic Training study listed preventative recommendations that included pre-examination and medical history screening, having an athletic trainer that was certified by the National Athletic Trainer’s Board, strict enforcement of rules including coaching players to not lead with their head, withholding players showing concussion symptoms until cleared by medical officials, continued education of both coaches and medical staff and proper preparation for a catastrophic head injury.

“Catastrophic injuries are rare, but the health care professional needs to be trained and prepared to deal with these potentially serious situations,” Mueller stated in the conclusion of the study. Tricia Johnson seems to agree when reflecting on her son’s injury and recovery.

“As far as helmet safety is concerned, nothing is one hundred percent foolproof,” the Borderite linebacker’s mother said in an email. “It is just a chance you take when you decide to play football or any other sport. There are some really great helmets available right now and we have been looking at them but nothing will guarantee that Caleb won’t receive another concussion.”

Despite the high visibility concussions and helmet safety have received recently, the Journal’s study was quick to emphasize that more than 1.5 million high school and middle school students play football annually as well as 75,000 in college.

The perceived rise in concussions and head injuries has risen consistently with the increasing number of boys playing football as its popularity has grown.

Statistically, a high school student still has a far greater chance of a fatal injury in an automobile accident than from being fatally injured in a football game.

Photo by Shawn Robinson