New helmet technology could lead to fewer concussions

New helmet technology could lead to fewer concussions

Football is a high-impact sport.

Even though the phrase is common sense, it doesn’t make us any less desensitized when we see a hit that leaves a player unconscious on the ground.

It’s a scary image. So scary that it’s prompted the decline of participation among Pop Warner (a 9.5 percent drop between 2010-12) and USA Football (a 6.7 percent drop in 2011 for ages 6 to 14).

But it’s also forced a sport that was once considered barbaric to become safer, smarter and more technologically savvy.

In the past year, Riddell has taken steps toward increasing player safety by creating a helmet that helps minimize the impact of a vicious hit by diffusing the energy of the hit throughout the helmet and using sensors inside the helmet to alert the sideline of a possible concussion.

Riddell’s newest helmet, set to debut on college fields this fall, is called SpeedFlex. This past spring about 30 teams across the country have been trying it out. The reaction, according to Riddell, has been positive, which is encouraging as their primary focus has been creating a helmet that minimizes the risk of concussions.

“It’s been an area of focus for Riddell certainly for more than a decade,” said Thad Ide, Riddle's senior vice president for research and development. “Ever since we introduced the Revolution helmet in 2002, that helmet was designed based on specific biomechanical research into the on-field impacts that led to concussions in players. Since that time, we’ve been conducting research and mining data and looking for ways that we can improve our helmets. Certainly, there’s been an increased focus in the public awareness of concussions in very recent years, too. That sort of focus has only highlighted the improvements that we’ve made.”

Most of the college programs that received SpeedFlex helmets this spring received a base model that only includes half of the technology of the helmets that will be rolled out in the fall. That addition will be sensors inside the helmet, a microprocessor and diagnostics software called InSite, which can sense the severity of an on-field impact and relay that information to a handheld device on the sideline.

Sounds pretty cutting edge, right? Well, actually it’s not.

The technology is a simplified version of software Riddell created more than a decade ago called the Sideline Response System. That system, which is expensive and currently used by just a handful of major universities, uses sensors in the helmet to gather data about each player, the way they hit, the hits they receive, the severity of those hits, and sends it to a computer that allows trainers, coaches, whomever, to determine if a player has suffered a potential head injury.

InSite takes all of that data and reduces it to two key alerts — a single impact or multiple impacts that could lead to a concussion.

“The only data that you get from InSite is whether an alert happened or not and whether that alert was a single impact alert or what we call a multiple impact alert, meaning there was a series of impacts in a period of time that merit an alert being transmitted to the sideline.” Ide said. “For it to set off a single-impact alert, it has to be in the top 1 percent of impacts for a given player’s skill level and playing position. And that top 1 percent is based on more than a decade of gathering data from these big university programs. So, there is a lot of information that’s gone into choosing these alert thresholds.

“The playing position can dictate a lot about the types of impact, series of impacts or impact exposures that you would expect. It is tailored very specifically for each individual player on the field.”

Ide stressed that InSite does not diagnose concussions, but rather gives the person holding the monitor more information about the types of hits a player has sustained and whether they could have resulted in a concussion.

According to Riddell, Arkansas was the only collegiate program testing out the InSite technology this spring, but the school declined to discuss the technology with Yahoo Sports, saying it didn’t want to endorse any products.

“Arkansas has actually invested in it,” Ide said. “They’ve committed to outfitting several players in this impact monitoring and reporting technology and to my knowledge they’re successfully using it in practice today.”

Even without the InSite technology, some programs like the changes to the composition of the SpeedFlex helmet and think those are a good step toward limiting concussions.

The University of Miami received the new helmets about two weeks into spring camp and handed them out to a few guys, who said they wanted to try them out.

“The best way to get some good feedback is to get it on some O-line, D-line, linebackers, guys that hit and then you get a good sense of how it holds up and how it performs on the field,” head equipment manager David Case told Yahoo Sports. “We’re kinda doing two things right now — we’re taking data for ourselves, but we’re also collecting data for Riddell so we can figure out the stuff that they’ve put on this new helmet that works and doesn’t work.”

Case said two of the highlights of the helmet are what Riddell calls The Flex System, which is used on the facemask, and the Composite Energy Management materials used on the inside of the helmet.

“There’s a little cutout in front of the helmet that kind of gives a little bit and there’s some thick foam right behind that that rests on your forehead,” Case said. “When you take a blow from someone, your helmet is moving forward and you take that blow on the front of the helmet, that little piece gives just a little bit and disperses all that shock from the hit throughout that foam so that it’s not directly going straight onto your forehead.

“They also have four quick release points on the helmet and there’s no screwdown posts on the front of the helmet at the nose bumper. There’s nothing there so that if you do take a hard shot there you don’t have the post from the screwdown thing going straight into your forehead. And the way this facemask is built, when you take a direct blow in the front of the helmet, it gives just a little bit and bows out so that it disperses all that force and pressure before it gets to your head.

“If you see a standard helmet, you see the screwdown posts at the top of the helmet, right in the front, right above your eyes. And they’re trying to take that away because that’s where a lot of the bad hits happen that help cause concussions. So, they’re taking that whole factor out of the process. So, between that with the facemask and the flex technology right on the top of the helmet shell, they’re thinking that’s going to be a significant reduction in the amount of concussions you see.”  

However, SpeedFlex is not a concussion-proof helmet. While it has technology that might prevent some concussions from happening and could ultimately give coaches and training staffs more information about hits players take on the field, it’s not going to stop football from being a violent sport.

“Everyone has this misconception that there’s a helmet out there that prevents a concussion,” Case said. “Even though this is the newest thing out there and Riddell thinks it’s going to be a big thing in preventing them, guys are still going to get concussions in every helmet that’s on the field. There’s no concussion-proof helmet, no magical helmet out there that’s going to keep a guy from getting it. And I think a lot of people think that’s the case, that there’s a certain helmet you can wear where you’re not going to get a concussion.”

But at least this is a step in the right direction.

Case said based on the feedback he’s already received from Miami players, he thinks Miami will have a significant order for the fall, though he said the staff never forces a player to wear a certain type of helmet. Ide said he anticipates the SpeedFlex and the InSite Technology being a popular choice for college players in the fall.

And Ide notes this technology is just scratching the surface of what helmets can ultimately become and how much safer they can make the game.

“I think the game is probably getting safer all the time,” Ide said. “There are a lot of things going on that whether it’s in coaching or education and research, new equipment development, all of these things are happening that are making the game safer to play. At the same time, people are becoming more aware of injuries or different types of injuries, but I think steps are being taken at all levels of play and in various disciplines in the football universe that are making the game safer to play all the time.”

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Graham Watson is the editor of Dr. Saturday on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at or follow her on Twitter