Virginia Tech has released results from its study on the effectiveness of adult football helmets in preventing concusions. They tested how well the 10 different helmets absorbed impact, and rated the helmets on a five star system based on their ability to reduce the likelihood of a concussion. The full results of the study can be found at http://www.sbes.vt.edu/nid.php
According to helmet manufacturer Riddell, 38 percent of NFL players wore the lower rated Riddell VSR-4 in 2010 (which was rated “marginal,” receiving one star in the Virginia Tech study) while about 39 percent wore the newer Riddell Revolution (which was one of the higher rated designs, scoring a “very good” four star rating).
In an exclusive interview, Pro Player Insiders reporter John Lanzafame spoke with Dr. John Sullivan, Clinical Sports Psychologist, regarding the results of the study and implications for NFL player safety and concussion prevention.
Q: The release of this study comes at a time with a lot of attention being focused on the question of concussion safety, including your three part series for ProPlayerInsiders. Why all the current attention on concussions and helmet safety?
Although this is a popular topic right now, the issue of concussions and football has been around for a long time. A hundred years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt called a meeting to discuss the safety of college football and concerns over concussions, although they didn’t even have a name for the condition yet. The only reason that the sport wasn’t banned at that time was that the invention of the forward pass was believed to reduce the contact in the sport. Ironically, today’s passing game results in some of the hardest hits on the field – with receivers going over the middle for the ball, and quarterbacks hanging in the pocket to deliver the ball down the field.
Over time, the players have gotten bigger, faster and stronger and the way the game has played has changed. Perhaps most importantly, our understanding of concussions has improved greatly, so we’re evaluating the issue differently now. Just over the last eight years, research performed by the military on traumatic brain injuries has greatly improved our understanding of what happens when the body absorbs energy from an impact. As our understanding improves, the issue of concussions gets more and more attention.
The helmet is the first thing people think of when we talk about concussions, because of the mistaken belief that concussions are due primarily to head-on-head contact, and that helmets can prevent concussions. Helmets are an important piece of safety equipment and do help to reduce the impact, but a helmet is not a complete solution to the problem – it is just a piece of the puzzle.
Q: How do players currently select their helmets? How much guidance are they given?
Across the league, players have a great deal of latitude in helmet selection and tend to choose based on what brands and equipment they know and are comfortable with. The level of information and guidance they are provided varies a lot from team to team, and there really isn’t any guidance dictated by the league.
Even beyond the NFL, there is currently no governing body that provides organized testing and rating guidelines for helmets. Organizations like the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) provide general guidelines on helmet usage, such as proper fit of helmets and their importance alongside other safety equipment, but NATA doesn’t provide a formal ratings system.
Q: How effective is the Virginia Tech rating system and testing methodology in differentiating the effectiveness of helmets for reducing concussions?
It’s a great starting point, and it’s better than any testing currently available, but we still have a long way to go. It’s still too early to tell if the Virginia Tech methodology will become the gold standard for evaluating helmet effectiveness.
I think it’s important to continue the discussion with the right people around the table, including applied neurophysicists and neuroscientists. This is a very complex mixture of physics and physiology, and we need to have the right people involved in the conversation to make real strides in improving safety.
Q: How is this study helpful to players and teams selecting safety equipment to reduce concussions?
Any time a new study comes out, it provides an opportunity to pause and think about best practices and safety. Athletes know that there is an inherent risk in competing. Providing more information to the athletes enables them to make better informed decisions.
New helmets and new safety equipment come out all the time, and obvious characteristics that effect performance (like visibility, field of view and comfort) are easier to evaluate than safety and effectiveness. Studies like the recent Virginia Tech publication provide good objective data to help players and teams in their selection process.
Q: With the availability of more concrete testing data, such as the methodology employed at Virginia Tech, should the NFL be mandating higher standards for helmets in an effort to reduce incidents of concussion?
Mandates by themselves aren’t the solution. Having standards is good, but they need to be set based on best practices and need to be flexible as technology evolves. We need to create a condition to keep up with evolution of the technology.
The important thing is to not take the decisions out of the hands of the experts and the caregivers who work directly with the players. Because our understanding of this issue is evolving so quickly, the NFLPA and NFL should have advisory boards to make recommendations and monitor improvements in science and technology. We need to keep the focus on the health, safety and welfare of the players.