Concussions remain a serious issue in sports, and with the recent White House concussion summit, the discussion has been raised a notch.
For the NFL and football at other levels, as well as other collision sports like hockey, the problem is existential. Youth football saw a significant decrease in participation, largely due to the perception of concussion issues. While concussions can never be prevented, they can be reduced.
While efforts like Heads Up Football are attempts to change the culture from the lowest levels up, those changes will take a generation to have an impact. Technological solutions, like new helmets and protective gear, have a chance to make changes quickly and progressively. Doing both could lead to a significant reduction, but the NFL hasn't done much in the way of encouraging the technological changes in the past. New initiatives that the NFL has recently set up should help, but it will be years before those results make it to the field.
Luckily, some companies are doing it anyway. Riddell has long been a leader in the field, with its helmets remaining the most worn brand in the NFL for the past two decades. Riddell is introducing its newest helmet, called the SpeedFlex, this season. The helmet was tested in several locations, including some at the collegiate level, this spring, and the company expects to be unable to meet demand this fall.
Thad Ide, the senior vice president for research at Riddell, told me that with all the changes in the new SpeedFlex, "it still has to pass the mirror test." Early users liked the look and the feel, he explained, with just enough noticeable differences to give it a cool factor. "We love it when someone says the helmet looks like something out of a Batman movie," he said.
The most noticeable feature of the new helmet is the cutout at the front. Called a cantilever, the feature allows the helmet to flex more while maintaining an overall stiffness. The thick padding behind the movable area doesn't allow it to move much, but just enough in an area where players can take big hits. The impact from either side also allow a bit more flex in the helmet to dissipate the hits inside before the force gets to the head.
The new helmet also changes one of the most basic features of the football helmet for the better. The chinstrap has been much the same for 70 years and has become a major issue. The helmet is not safely attached without it snapped, but players often snap and unsnap it, sometimes leaving it off intentionally.
The SpeedFlex instead uses a ratcheting system that locks the helmet into place with a four-point system. While it can be easily removed, the quick "tug-tug" system will get a custom and comfortable fit while making it nearly impossible to "forget" to snap the helmet. It's a brilliant solution to a simple but lasting problem.
The facemask on the helmet is also a new construction, a light but slightly bendable alloy. Both the shape and the malleability assist in shifting the force away from the head. It can be customized in terms of look, but the general shape is not unusual and is focused on keeping low jaw hits from happening, as introduced in the last generation of helmets.
The facemask also comes with a new release system. While quick release closures have been mandated for years and standardized, this new system has a small push-button actuated release. With serious injuries, the facemask needs to be removed for ease of care. Until now, athletic trainers have had to carry a special tool for cutting off the connectors. This system saves the trainer from the need for one more piece of equipment in his pack or fumbling for it at a time when seconds count.
Perhaps the biggest innovation is not in the helmet itself. Instead, the SpeedFlex was designed from the beginning to work with the InSite system, a sensor network that alerts the sideline when a big hit has happened. The control unit will get the alert and let medical personnel know that a certain player needs to be checked. There are a combination of factors that set off the piezoelectric sensor, so the system can be set to check for threshold impact or a series of lesser impacts.
The cost is an issue. Ide told me that the price is about $150 per helmet, including the control unit. Some of that may be offset by insurance savings, but since the helmet and sensor system is new, Riddell wasn't sure how much savings there might be. This isn't the same as Riddell's more advanced sensor system (called HITS) that is used in research. This is merely an alert system, and the cost is significantly lower.
Once the helmet is on, it feels pretty standard. It takes a closer look to see that there's a variety of padding. There's the standard air bladder and foam, but there's also a substance closer to the memory foam you see in beds in a couple locations.
Riddell provided me with a test unit of the SpeedFlex, and while I didn't test the impacts of the helmet, it does have a good feel. It was quickly and easily fitted using both the air bladder and the foam adjusting to my head. The ratchet chinstrap works better than a snap system. While the helmet is slightly bigger than the unit it replaces (yes, I have one of those handy too), it does not look or feel bigger. It passes both the mirror test and the feel test handily.
There's no helmet that can prevent concussions, but early results are very positive. Riddell wasn't ready to quote any numbers, but we've seen that new designs such as the Xenith or Simpson helmets can show significant decreases in force transfer. If all the advances that Riddell has made with this helmet reduce the forces further, they'll have a winner on their hands.
There also have been advances in hockey, where concussion issues with top stars such as Sidney Crosby and Eric Lindros have made it a focus. It's important to note any technological advances cross over easily between sports. While there are functional differences, a helmet is more or less a helmet.
The CCM Resistance helmet has one intriguing new feature that bears noting.
Hockey has to deal with rotational forces more than most sports. Much like a boxer getting hit in the jaw and spinning his head around, hockey deals with the same kind of rotational forces in three dimensions. Shifting some of that force away from the brain has long been an issue for helmets due to the fact that they're solid.
CCM has come up with a novel solution to this that in a way detaches the interior padding of the helmet from the hard exterior. Underneath the standard foam padding are several small plastic discs. Inside the discs are a proprietary liquid. CCM says that with 70 percent of hits coming to the side of the head in hockey, this system will help reduce those rotational forces.
The system is being tested right now by third parties, but CCM will certainly tout any results before the helmet comes onto the general market. The Resistance helmet was tested by about 15 players last year and none had any problems with it.
Again, the helmet (which was provided for inspection by CCM) looks and feels like a normal helmet. It is light, sturdy and even more than the SpeedFlex, it passes the mirror test. In fact, it's difficult to see that there's anything special without looking inside the helmet to see the discs.
While the CCM Resistance helmet is specifically built for hockey, there's no reason that the technology couldn't be used in other helmets. I was told there's a bigger market for extreme sports, such as skateboarding and skiing, where they would focus first if it proves successful. It could, however, be used in football as well.
Again, neither of these helmets is going to prevent concussions, but they should prove to be taking steps towards reducing them. They weren't made in association with a league, which shows that there's still more room for gains if the leagues themselves incentivize improvements in helmet technology.
This is also technology that will trickle down quickly. While the reuse and reconditioning of helmets is standard practice, rapid technological change can drive a quicker changeover. With all the major helmet manufacturers evolving their designs, such as Xenith and Schutt, it would be a great time for the NFL to push for all of its players to use the newer designs. To be fair, any player could simply choose to wear a current generation helmet and I hope many do.
It's nice to see that there are rapid changes going on to address such a serious problem. Riddell and CCM should be praised for both the research and the realities of their new helmets. We can now only hope that we'll see more of these on heads next season and fewer concussions.