In high school contact sports, parents are often comforted that despite whatever risks a sport entails, their child’s safety equipment will reduce the chance of serious injuries. Last October, a New York Times story reported that the manufacturers of football helmets have not lived up to their part of their bargain, as helmets that say “Meets NOCSAE Standard” should seldom be trusted. This week, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate helmet manufacturers for what he called “misleading safety claims and deceptive practices.”
Udall’s claims focus primarily on Riddell, which is best known for producing helmets for the NFL, but is a leading manufacturer of high school helmets as well. The company alleges that one of its popular helmet models reduces concussions 31 percent compared to other helmets, despite conflicting reports that suggest the figure is false. “Athletes, coaches and parents today are increasingly aware of the danger of a concussion, and this awareness influences decisions about buying new and reconditioned football helmets,” Udall wrote. “Athletes who have already suffered a concussion – as well as coaches and parents – may be particularly susceptible to misleading marketing claims about helmet safety.”
In fact, reports the Times, high school football helmets have been tested and modified to prevent skull fractures, but have never been proven fully adequate to protect against concussions. Oddly, the raw materials required to protect from skull fractures and concussions are different. Needing to limit the weight of football helmets, manufacturers are faced with an impossible choice: make them adequate to prevent skull fractures, but susceptible to possible concussions, or protect concussions, potentially leaving the skull vulnerable. Regardless, helmet manufacturers have marketed their product as concussion-reducing thanks to questionable research methods:
The 31 percent figure has long been criticized because new Revolution helmets had been compared with used helmets of unknown age and condition. Riddell paid for the study, which was co-written by the company’s top engineer, Thad Ide. Udall also pointed out that Riddell uses the 31 percent figure to market its youth-size Revolutions, which were not studied at all.
In the face of Udall’s letter and the Times stories, Riddell CEO has sidestepped blame. “We stand behind the research,” he said. “We recognize that there are different points of view, but we believe that it is the most relevant and reviewed research that is available.”
Nearly 4.5 million students under 18 are on football rosters across the country, and more than one million students buy new helmets each year, which often cost upwards of $400. Though helmet manufacturers and safety regulators have not yet determined appropriate methods to reducing concussions and some other head injuries, it is important that high schoolers and their parents get on the field with full knowledge of the safety risks they are taking and play accordingly.
Photo credit: Monica’s Dad