Helmet safety isn't limiting concussions, standards may not improve

While every state in the country is now shining a brighter light on concussion management in high school sports, there's a compelling argument that not nearly enough is being done to analyze the instruments most responsible for keeping those concussions from happening: helmets.

According to a lengthy investigation by the New York Times that was published on Thursday, helmet-safety oversight is spotty, inefficient and largely ineffectual. Perhaps worse, some head-trauma experts argue that the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment has even stifled innovation that would make helmets safer for student athletes.

In his report, the Times' Alan Schwarz argues that football helmets fail to protect growing athletes adequately in part because there are no regulated standards for helmets aimed at decreasing the risk of concussions. Instead, current NOCSAE standards are focused only on avoiding skull fractures, a reaction to a rash of football-related deaths in the 1960s.

The NOCSAE certification standards have essentially remained the same since then, despite an estimated 100,000 high school athletes suffering concussions in the course of a single football season, according to a report from Columbus, Ohio's Nationwide Children's Hospital.

While no one has been able to target precise helmet changes that would minimize concussion risks, some argue that a lack of knowledge is now being used to maintain lackluster safety standards that have changed little, if at all, since the original NOCSAE standard was implemented 30 years ago.

"[NOCSAE is] asleep at the switch," NOCSAE vice president and Boston University School of Medicine's Robert Cantu told the Times. "I have been calling for a new standard to be written for football helmets for years, and NOCSAE has been sitting on their duffs. Everyone's afraid of being sued, because if you say that certain helmets are better, you're saying that millions of them out there now aren't safe."

That inaction is exacerbated by a palpable fear among NOCSAE officials that adjusting current standards -- which have proven remarkably efficient at all but eliminating skull fractures and other serious risks like brain bleeding -- could lead to a rise in other head injuries.

"When you have something that has worked well for a lot of years, you have to be pretty cautious," Mike Oliver, NOCSAE's executive director told the Times. "If we save 15,000 concussions with a new standard but allow one skull fracture, if we save 5,000 concussions and allow one subdural hematoma, is it worth it? I can't tell you that would be the trade-off, but you've got to basically be really sure that change wouldn't adversely affect something else."

Meanwhile, scientists working to limit head injuries claim that exact line of thought is stifling innovation among helmet manufacturers like Riddell, Schutt and Xenith, which are allowed to roll out thousands of new helmets each year that meet existing standards, not improved ones.

One researcher in particular said that the NOCSAE is couching inaction in terminology which reeks of a false sense of ignorance.

"They say they don't know what the thresholds are; O.K., but I can tell you that less angular acceleration is better than more," Blane Hoshizaki, director of human kinetics at the Neurotrauma Impact Research Lab at the University of Ottawa, told the Times. "To suggest we have no idea so we'll do nothing is not an excuse to me. This has become a serious impediment to making a safer football environment."

As more time ticks by, the existing equipment being used by student athletes across the country gets more and more outdated. In its report, the Times cited troubling statistics that only 10-20 percent of football players at the high school level or below are competing in new helmets during the 2010 season. The other 80-90 percent, it claims, are urged to use helmets that undergo a reconditioning process, yet as many as 500,000 young football players are estimated to have skipped that step, according to data used by the National Athletic Equipment Reconditioners Association.

What does all this mean? While companies like Riddell may trumpet new features in their headgear each August, those self-appointed accolades are diminished by a lack of progressive safety standards across the industry and the lack of upkeep over their models still in the field. It goes without saying that young athletes will continue to be at a higher risk of concussions and head trauma until those issues are resolved, or at least improved.

"The fact that there's only one standard for everything, designed 30 years ago for a different problem, indicates how far off the industry is right now from having an acceptable standard," Xenith founder and president Vin Ferrara told the Times. "[NOCSAE standards are] wholly inadequate."

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