Government regulation may loom for football helmet makers

It's often said that the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow but exceedingly fine. If that's the case, then the companies which manufacture football helmets may have a long stretch of gradually intensifying concern ahead of them.

According to the Associated Press, which followed an initial reported by the New York Times, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall has written a letter to Federal Trade Commission chairman Jon Liebowitz, urging the FTC to investigate claims by helmet manufacturers which Udall considers to constitute false advertising, complete with false claims that used or faulty helmets meet an industry safety standard.

Here's what the AP highlighted from Udall's letter, which was leaked on Monday night before it was sent out on Tuesday.

In his letter to the FTC's Leibowitz, Udall says he is "troubled by misleading marketing claims by Riddell, a leading helmet maker that supplies the official helmet to the National Football League."

He quotes Riddell's website as saying that "research shows a 31 percent reduction in the risk of concussion in players wearing a Riddell Revolution football helmet when compared to traditional helmets."

Udall adds: "Yet there is actually very little scientific evidence to support the claim."

Not surprisingly, Udall is on to something. Media outlets including Prep Rally first reported on the lax industry safety and reconditioning standards surrounding football helmets in October, after the Times first published an investigation into the lack of industry standards and safety innovation of Riddell and Schutt, the nation's two leading helmet manufacturers.

As one might expect, Riddell officials roundly denounced Udall's public concern over their products.

"After reviewing Senator Udall's letter to the Federal Trade Commission, we believe his statements and allegations are unfounded and unfair," Riddell CEO Dan Arment told the AP. "Riddell has consistently maintained a policy of transparency with all of our research and products and participated in any helmet test when requested. Riddell has exceeded all of the industry standards and conducts and submits to more rigorous testing than most companies in other industries.

"We welcome any scrutiny and review. For the public's benefit, we hope that the FTC will provide greater scrutiny of all helmet manufacturers."

While Riddell and Schutt have to issue comments echoing the final two sentences of Arment's statement above, they could stand to lose millions of dollars if they are forced to revise industry standards or pump additional funds into safety testing and additional innovation.

Who stands to lose the most from those expenses? Arment himself. Easton-Bell -- the parent company of Riddell -- pulled in a 2010 third quarter net earning profit of $3 million, a number which was only below their 2009 third quarter net earning profits of more than $6 million because of very high incentive compensation expenses. In other words, Riddell's increased dominance of the helmet market -- the company's team sports sales increased by $11.3 million to a number around $95 million in the third quarter alone -- triggered high performance bonuses in employees' contracts (i.e., executive pay rises), which actually caused the company to finish with a lower net gain than it did the previous year.

No wonder Arment wants to ensure that the current industry standards, in which Riddell has found ways to claim that its relatively minor improvements are revolutionary, remain the same.

If the FTC does begin an investigation into industry practices, change for large helmet makers like Riddell and Schutt would be almost inevitable. While that might not be welcomed by the companies themselves, it would be a reason to celebrate for the rest of the paying public, particularly those whose children head out on to football fields across the country wearing a Riddell or Schutt helmet.

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