Football Helmet Ratings Changing Game And Business
When Virginia Tech started rating football helmets it changed the game and business by providing legitimate safety testing. The Sports Techie community blog chatted with Bloomberg Business reporter Bryan Gurley about his recent news piece that began as an article about Schutt Sports and evolved into a story and video about Virginia Tech. The lifelong hockey fan interviewed Stefan Duma, head of Virginia Tech’s School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, and the professor responsible for generating the ratings, about their pioneering rating program. He took a tour of Schutt factories and spent time with their CEO, Robert Erb. What he uncovered is the question whether improved science and tech are causing a design and manufacturing shift away from producing helmets that concentrate on preventing high-impact blows, to more importance being placed on the prevention of soft hits accumulated over a season and lifetime.
According to Gurley, Duma created a method for simplifying helmet purchasing for buyers and parents by converted the values into categories of football helmets ranked by stars. In May 2011, the first STAR (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk) ratings system was published by VT. “The No. 1 message we’re trying to send is for people to get rid of those old helmets,” said Duma.
It would have been nice if we had started this in 1930, but we didn’t,” said San Francisco 49ers chairman John York, leader of the NFL owners’ health and safety committee. The rankings have “driven adoption of more technology in helmets,” Thad Ide, Riddell’s senior vice president for research and product development, told Gurley. The main problem remains, no helmet is concussion-proof.
New SpeedFlex models increase face mask and shell flexibility, while absorbing energy with a spongy forehead flap. Last October, Riddell received the highest score in company history helping the product be a top seller.
Super Bowl XLIX has twenty-one Seattle Seahawks and NE Patriots starters wearing five-star helmets, mainly the Revolution Speeds. There will be eleven Schutt AiR XP Pros SB 49 users although the helmet as of yet does not own a rating, Gurley reports the company says they are worthy of at least four stars.
It is no surprise to learn that the old Riddell VSR4 helmets worn by Hokie players earned a one star so VT coaches replaced them with a higher rated Riddell Revolution Speed helmet rated as five stars.
The Hits and Sacks Behind Virginia Tech’s Helmet Tests
The video shows how researchers are testing different impacts on helmets and then rating them from best to worst. Different helmet models use shock-measuring sensors to calculate impacts with weighted objects over 120 times. The more times a particular hit happened, regardless of the level of blow, importance was added.
Only large sized helmets were tested, while Gurley says, “ratings were based only on linear forces that result from direct blows rather than the rotational impacts that researchers think may play a larger role in concussions.” Riddell, Xenith, and Schutt all agreed to eliminate false advertising claims after a Federal Trade Commission investigation in 2013.
Rawlings reemerged as a helmet maker in 2010 and has two five-star models for sale. Xenith changed their helmet padding system and now has three five-star helmets on the market. “Like it or not, Virginia Tech has become kind of like the J.D. Power for ranking helmets,” Xenith CEO Chuck Huggins told Gurley.
The Riddell Insite Impact Response System is out of budget for most teams at this point, felt Gurley. He handled the Schutt Vision AiR XP Pro helmet that comes embedded with a high definition camera, giving viewers a unique POV seen in video games like Madden 15.
NFL Concussion and Injury Data
The NFL released health and concussion numbers yesterday showing 111 reported game concussions during the 2014 regular season. “Players are changing the way they’re tackling,” said NFL Senior Vice President of Health and Safety Policy Jeff Miller.
Compared to 148 concussive bows in 2013 and 173 in 2012, the newest data shows a 36 percent decrease over the past three seasons. The NFL says there was a 25 percent drop of reported concussions over 2014. The number one cause for 59 concussions are helmet-to-helmet or shoulder-to-helmet hits, reduced by nearly almost half the amount of two years ago.
“Concussions are like snowflakes—no two are alike,” says Kevin Guskiewicz, a University of North Carolina professor who’s worked on NFL and NCAA committees on brain trauma. “The threshold for injury is elusive, and we can’t put a number on that to suggest a big-hit impact of 140 Gs is two times more likely to cause a concussion than one at 70 Gs. We have seen athletes sustain impacts at 140 Gs that did not result in a concussion, while in the same game an athlete has sustained a concussion with a 70 G impact.”
Impacts considered light can occur 200 times during a season. Knockout type blows often register in excessive of 90 Gs and are not very frequent yet are over 90 percent sure of causing a concussion. Preventing what happens to the brain after a full season of accumulating less impactful hits that do not produce concussion symptoms but may lead to predictable long-term brain trauma such as dementia pugilistica, often inflicting boxers, is now driving the industry.
As helmets improved, the NFL emphasis on concussion protocol seems to be making a notable difference. A new electronic medical records injury reporting system was installed allowed for deep dive analytical breakdowns of more thorough big data. The new system is heralded as the reason why injury reporting increased by 15 percent, or an average per game of about 0.9 per game last year.
Metrics also revealed that players placed on the injured reserve list increased by 17 percent from 2013. STATS say 265 players were placed on IR, compared to 226 the previous season.
The great debate on player helmet safety reminds me of the global warming argument; most people are believers the earth is heating too fast while it does not take a rocket scientist to understand that any blow to the head in a football game is dangerous. Remember, not a single new rule was implemented to protect players’ heads.
Sports Techie, Deflategate is an issue because of 1 extra psi of air inflation to game footballs by the Patriots; concussiongate is raging on across football because of the wide range of soft and hard hits to the helmet that cause various levels of brain damage due to head acceleration.
First thing a professional player does is see how he looks in a new helmet, so while big helmets could nearly solve concussions, they are ugly and would ultimately change balance, speed and look, things players don’t want.
The $675 million class action suit settlement between the NFL owners and 4,500 NFLPA members facing neuro-cognitive illnesses is ongoing.
I asked Gurley if the STAR was helping youth and parents? He felt that VT is helping and are correcting an issue that’s been around for a long time. He said, “VT’s making an effort to try and protect but it is insane to rate helmets for kids, and high school and college.”
The path Pop Warner football is on is similar to little league baseball in that new rules and gear are introduced to youth first and they trickle up as kids age into teens and adulthood.
Interesting news that Tom Brady uses a one-star Riddell VSR4 rather than any five-star helmet. Gurley said Brady is superstitious and puts in extra padding in the same helmet worn in three previous Super Bowl appearances.
New hockey helmet ratings are forthcoming perhaps by the end of next month, this is sure to displace the space. Gurley loves the sport and would be surprised if it changes the NHL, leagues could however require youth levels to wear them, like they did with shield’s and cages.
“With all the technological innovations that we’ve had over the past few years, I’m surprised the numbers keep going down,” St. Louis Rams team doctor Matthew Matava said. Just like I am surprise that the CDC ranks bicycling as more dangerous than football.
Bottom line, Gurley felt no dishonesty going on amongst the vendors and VT. Can the same be said for the NFL, NCAA, FIFA, and NGBs, that are trying to be forthright with concussion data and safety best practices. The jury is still out whether a reduction in on-the-field concussion totals is a result of more five-star options with more padding and sophisticated webbing, or perhaps the reason is there are less four- and three-star helmets in use.
I recommend 5 star all the way.
Thanks to Bloomberg for the opportunity to cover this feature story.
See y’all later in Seattle and here in Atlanta.
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