Federal Judge Bats Down Football Helmet Conspiracy Antitrust Lawsuit

Michael McCann
·3 min read

A new ruling by a federal judge upholds the ability of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) to influence the sale of helmets and related products.

On Apr. 22, Judge Gershwin Drain of Michigan’s Eastern Federal District Court dismissed a lawsuit brought by Mayfield Athletics, seller of a football helmet shock absorber called SAFE Clip. “SAFE” stands for “shock absorbing football equipment.” The product, small plastic clips that screw into regulation helmets and hold the facemask, purportedly “allow the facemask to slightly move backwards and absorb impact forces through a shock absorbing insert” and “reduces the impact to the head and may help to prevent injury.”

Mayfield contends that NOCSAE has unlawfully conspired with a handful of football helmet manufacturers—including Riddell, Schutt Sports, Xenith and other named co-defendants—to control nearly 100% of the market for football helmets and add-ons.

Judge Drain, 72, might be uniquely well-situated to preside over this case. During the late 1960s, he was a starting defensive back for the Western Michigan Broncos before attending the University of Michigan Law School. He told Legal News last year he holds the “the unique distinction of never intercepting a pass” as a college defensive back. Drain light-heartedly rejected the possibility that it was because quarterbacks were afraid to throw near him.

NOCSAE is a non-profit organization that sets safety standards for athletic equipment in football, baseball, lacrosse and other sports. With an overarching goal of preventing neurological trauma and other injuries, it certifies sports equipment that meets safety benchmarks. Although NOCSAE is not a government entity and no product “must” bear NOCSAE-certification for retail, most football regulatory bodies—including youth leagues, the NCAA and NFL—require that helmets satisfy NOCSAE standards.

As Mayfield sees it, the absence of NOCSAE’s blessing for a product is tantamount to the “almost entire exclus[ion]” of that product from the marketplace. This is particularly the case, Mayfield asserts, because companies with products approved by NOCSAE can profit from use of NOCSAE-trademarked logos and phrases. Stated differently, a helmet or related product that doesn’t say “NOCSAE certified” is one a consumer is less likely to buy.

Mayfield’s specific grievance concerns how NOCSAE addresses add-on products to already certified helmets. NOCSAE’s core objection to such add-ons is that they morph a certified helmet into a new product that was neither tested nor certified. In 2018, NOCSAE announced that add-on manufacturers (including Mayfield) could no longer independently acquire NOCSAE certification for helmet add-on combinations. Moreover, helmet manufacturers, per established NOCSAE policy, can declare its certification void should they worry about add-ons. As Mayfield sees it, NOCSAE and helmet manufacturers are violating the Sherman Antitrust Act and other laws by conspiring to interfere with SAFE Clip sales.

Judge Drain rejected this argument, noting that NOCSAE’s 2018 policy statement didn’t change the ability of helmet manufacturers to declare their certifications void or to take any particular action—each manufacturer could independently (and thus not as a supposed conspirator) do what it wanted. He further reasoned that Mayfield couldn’t show there was an actual agreement or sufficient circumstantial evidence, such as communications or media statements, “to exclude the possibility of independent conduct [by NOCSAE and certified helmet manufacturers].”

Mayfield’s other claims also failed to persuade Judge Drain. The company asserts that NOCSAE and helmet manufacturers have intentionally interfered with Mayfield’s “ongoing business relationships and business expectancies with football teams, football players, football equipment distributors and other purchasers of football equipment.” NOCSAE notes that Georgetown University’s football team rejected a purchase of SAFE Clips for, as portrayed by the judge, “fear that the product would void the helmets’ warranties.” The deficiency of this argument, Judge Drain stressed, is that Mayfield failed to offer facts suggesting it was close to striking a deal with Georgetown or other schools.

Mayfield can appeal Judge Drain’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

More from Sportico.com