Nov. 23, 2010: Concussions bring helmet safety into question


If you play high-level football, brain trauma is not a risk but a reality. And a helmet isn’t going to save you. In fact, it’s probably part of the problem.

Nov. 23, 2010
Toronto Star
Morgan Campbell
Sports Reporter
A good football helmet can withstand the force of a 35-pound weight dropped on it from eight feet high.

If you’re a 250-pound linebacker in a high-impact, foreheads-first collision with a fullback, a helmet saves both of you from fractured skulls. And if you’re just learning to play, a helmet lets you tackle the way they teach you — head up, shoulder in the other guy’s gut, facemask on the ball.

Neurologists are learning more about how football’s head shots affect players’ brains. While the list of former players suffering from dementia grows so does the realization that for everything a helmet can do, it can’t stop your brain from crashing against the inside of your skull during a big hit.

A string of violent hits and concussions recently have forced the NFL to toughen the rules around helmet-first hits and focus attention on the safety of helmets themselves. Helmet manufacturers do acknowledge even the safest helmets can only do so much.

“There’s a limit within reasonable playing conditions . . . as to how much the helmet can do,” says Thad Ide, vice-president of research and development for Riddell, the NFL’s official helmet manufacturer. “A big, fast guy can always run into another big, fast guy at collision forces that might be beyond what a helmet can handle.”

In mid-November, former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon detailed for ESPN.com his struggles with memory loss, lending credence to an idea made plain with every head shot on a football field.

If you play high-level football, brain trauma is not a risk but a reality. And a helmet isn’t going to save you.

In fact, it’s probably part of the problem.

***

A football helmet is like a boxing glove; it serves a different role in practice than it does in theory.

Theoretically speaking, boxing gloves protect the guy being punched and make the sport safer than bare-knuckle brawling.

But any boxer or mixed martial artist can tell you gloves protect the guy doing the punching. Unlike bare fists, hands encased in athletic tape and eight-ounce gloves can pound skulls round after round without breaking, prolonging the action and the punishment.

Similarly, a six- to eight-pound helmet backed by a massive set of shoulder pads doubles as a weapon, turning a player’s head into a battering ram, and turning a game of contact into a game of collisions.

Last month, Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder highlighted the helmet’s role as a weapon in highlight-reel hits when he vented about rule changes aimed at curtailing head shots.

“If I get the chance to knock somebody out, I’m going to knock them out and take what (punishment) they give me,” he told Associated Press. “They give me a helmet and I’m going to use it.”

Last month, Steelers linebacker James Harrison used his helmet in a pair of vicious hits against the Cleveland Browns. His head shots were aimed against tight end Tim Massaquoi and receiver Josh Cribbs, earning him $75,000 in fines.

Experts say if either collision had occurred without helmets, both players would have fractured their skulls, so the helmets did what they’re designed to do.

So why aren’t helmets concussion-proof then? Manufacturers argue it’s not that simple.

Ide says the most effective way to improve a helmet’s defense against concussions is to increase the “offset,” or the distance between the player’s skull and the helmet’s outer shell.

Independent studies show Riddell’s Revolution helmet, in wide use from youth leagues to the NFL, cuts the risk of concussion by 31 per cent thanks to increased padding for parts of the head that receive the heaviest blows.

When Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson returned two weeks after he received a thunderous hit from Atlanta’s Dunta Robinson and was sidelined with a concussion, he wore a new helmet from Schutt, similarly designed to make concussions less likely.

But again, limits exist.

A helmet thick enough to stop the brain from rattling around inside the skull would need to be four times thicker than current models, says Dr. Robert Cantu, a Boston University neurologist.

“You make the helmet that much bigger and heavier and both of those things put the neck muscles at greater risk,” he says. “You’re not going to see that happen.”

** *

On a December afternoon in Kansas City, Chiefs cornerback Brandon Carr saw the play flow his way. A gap opened in the defensive line to reveal a Cleveland Browns fullback charging through it with a tailback trailing him.

A 250-brick wall of a man, Lawrence Vickers didn’t log one carry all last season. His one job is to mash would-be tacklers, and afternoon Carr was his target.

Ten yards away, Carr sighed and resigned himself to a fierce collision. Vickers had a 43-pound weight advantage and a running start but this is the game for players like Carr; you gather your strength, you brace for violence, you step forward and meet it head on.

Carr remembers rushing toward the oncoming Vickers, their helmets meeting with a loud crack.

Then he remembers a flash of blackness.

“It’s ringing in your ears. You’re disoriented for a split second or so,” said Carr, now in his second year with the Chiefs. “It was like, ‘Oh man, that was a powerful impact.’”

Carr’s blackout lasted about as long as the collision itself, and his vision returned in time for him to see his teammates swarming the Browns’ ball carrier. Knowing he had done his job, Carr quickly huddled for the next play.

While huge hits earn attention, brief collisions like the one between Carr and Vickers happen in every game — a play-in, play-out pounding that causes no concussions but can lead to brain issues in the long term.

Researchers at several U.S. universities — including North Carolina and Virginia Tech — have outfitted their football teams with helmets that measure the severity of head shots. Studies reveal a first-string player receives anywhere from 800 to 1500 blows of at least 20Gs in a season.

Cantu says 20G equates to a stiff jab from a boxer, not enough to knock an athlete out but enough to make him woozy for a second.

Researchers also found the majority of those head blows came during practice.

Season after season, those smaller shots add up.

After University of Pennsylvania linebacker Owen Thomas committed suicide last April, an autopsy revealed he suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that results from repeated blows to the head.

Thomas, 21, had never been diagnosed with a concussion and doctors deduced that his brain condition —which is common among retired boxers — stemmed from the thousands of sub-concussive head shots he gave and received during his football career.

Researchers have discovered CTE in at least 20 other deceased NFL players, including Cincinnatti Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, who died at 26 when he fell out of a moving pickup truck.

While no expert will blame helmets for the death of Thomas or any other football player, Cantu does make a connection between the amount of time spent wearing helmets and the number of head shots absorbed.

While there isn’t any research comparing the severity of headshots in football to those in rugby, when Cantu watches rugby he notices one crucial difference between it and American football: Exponentially fewer head-on-head collisions.

** *

So if helmets are contributing to the problem, is abolishing helmets the solution?

Not exactly, Cantu says.

A return to leatherhead days would probably cause a spike in skull fractures and deaths, even if players grew more careful about how they hit each other.

But he says removing helmets and limiting the contact in practice would eliminate gratuitous head shots and save players’ brains in the long run.

‘Most of the purposeful helmet-to-helmet stuff needs to come out,” he says. “And we know that when players practise without helmets, they don’t hit heads.”

Meanwhile, Riddell plans to introduce an even safer helmet in 2011, as well as making the impact-measuring technology more widely available to youth teams.

So-called “smart helmets” would allow team trainers to track the head trauma each player suffers, allowing them to figure out which players need to sit out, which ones are at risk for a concussion and which ones need to stop using their helmets as weapons.

The overall goal, Ide says, is to alter the growing perception that football isn’t just dangerous, but prohibitively so.

“Football is a great game,” he says. “We want people to play it.”

Copyright 2010 Toronto Star

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