NFL, NFLPA help launch new helmet initiative for youth football players

One of the more far-reaching ramifications of America's increasing concern with football safety is the increasing percentage of parents -- including former NFL players -- who would hesitate to let their sons play football. As we discussed in February, the fact that there could be millions of young men suffering from concussions at the sub-college level may erode the sport by providing a diminishing talent base as more potential young stars are driven to other sports by the inherent risks of the game.

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Though the NFL has been reactionary at best on this subject, a new initiative put forth by the league, the Players Association, and other organizations provides a source of reason and hope. As the NFL Communications press release states:

The initiative will remove helmets that are 10 years old or older and replace them with new helmets at no cost to the beneficiary leagues and will provide coaches with the latest educational information to help keep their young athletes safer and healthier.

In its first year, the program is being piloted in four markets: the California Bay Area, Gulf Coast region, Northern Ohio, and the tri-state region around New York City.  The NFL, NFLPA, NCAA and NOCSAE have committed a combined total of approximately $1 million to the program in its first year. The pilot program is designed to provide valuable information on the state of youth football helmets, including the number of helmets 10 years old or older in use.  As of 2012, NAERA members will no longer recondition or recertify any helmet that is 10 years of age or older.  NOCSAE will collect the helmets when removed and use them for ongoing research programs.

The program, initiated by U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Chairman Inez Tenenbaum, will educate thousands of coaches on concussion awareness, and distribute more than 13,000 helmets to low-income areas.

"The time has come to accelerate the culture change needed to improve the health and safety of youth football players," Tenenbaum said.  "Even with our push for improved safety equipment, it is vital that parents, coaches and players understand that there is no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet.  The best answer is safer and smarter play, which is why this game-changing program is aimed at reducing hits to the head and trauma to the brain.  I want to thank everyone involved in this initiative for joining together in a common commitment to youth player safety."

In addition to the NFL, NFLPA and U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, involvement comes from USA Football, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Athletic Equipment Reconditioners Association, the NCAA, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), and equipment manufactures Rawlings, Riddell, Schutt and Xenith.

"We are pleased to be part of this initiative, which will give children in underserved communities access to new helmets, and to reach coaches and parents with educational information to help protect young athletes from head injuries," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. "This program is part of our focus on player safety at all levels of the game. We are proud to join with these well-respected organizations to make the Helmet Replacement Program a reality."

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As the press release states, helmets do not prevent concussions -- but better helmets and better awareness can certainly help. In addition to the more advanced equipment provided, the Helmet Replacement Program will educate coaches on the following points:

-- "Start with Safety": Concussion awareness and response information, featuring links to CDC content and resources

-- "Perfect Fitting":  Helmet fitting information, including links to manufacturer-specific fitting resources

-- "Tackle Safety": USA Football's Tackle Progression Model and Levels of Contact information and videos

-- "Helmet Condition": Reconditioning and replacement information

The Helmet Replacement Program is not a final solution, but it's a good move forward on a subject that has been hidden and ignored for far too long.

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