DOHERTY: Absorbing the changes in football helmet design

The Times of Northwest Indiana

April 16, 2024

The NFL released its updated helmet ratings last week. New and improved – supposedly – models come out annually. As a consequence, older models – once at the top of the ratings – drop lower each year on the NFL’s chart until they are banned.

One would think, then, that concussion rates would decrease as the shock absorption in these newer helmets improves. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case. Reported concussions in the NFL rose from 213 in 2022 to 219 in 2023.

Perhaps part of the problem is the circumference and weight of these newer models. According to a 2012 study in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering, by the last decade, football helmets were 2.7 times heavier than models from the 1970s. They were significantly longer, higher, and wider, too.

While unquestionably better at absorbing and distributing shock from a direct blow, at least in the laboratory, their performance on the field has been no better than older models.

Perhaps physics and anatomy offer an explanation. As research into sport-related head trauma has advanced, we have learned that concussion is not caused so much by the linear forces from a direct blow but by secondary rotational forces – the head quite literally spinning and tipping on the neck after the hit.

These newer, bigger helmets have a larger “sweet spot” than the helmets of old for delivering the ideal blow to cause a concussion, much like the difference between a softball and a baseball. The added weight also increases the momentum of the rotational forces once the blow has been struck.

All of which causes me to worry about something far worse than a concussion: a catastrophic cervical spine (neck) injury.

Video studies performed decades ago in the aftermath of such injuries by Philadelphia neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Torg showed the sweet spot for a cervical fracture is actually on the front of the shell of the helmet, just above the facemask. The typical mechanism is a tackler leaving his feet and making initial contact – striking the ball carrier – with that spot. The tackler’s head stops but his body keeps coming from behind and in a split second literally crushes and collapses the spinal column in his neck. A severed or severely damaged spinal cord and quadriplegic paralysis is often the result.

Now, with these newer helmets, that sweet spot is bigger. Rules prohibit tackling in the manner described above but the practice of “spearing” to tackle and punish opposing players continues and is rarely flagged.

On April 6, UFL kicker Donald De La Haye of the San Antonio Brahmas put his down and placed his forehead right in the chest of a kick returner for the Memphis Showboats, driving the ball carrier out of bounds. De La Haye then tumbled to the turf but popped right back up. He was not penalized.

By Tuesday, though, he was on Instagram letting fans know that he had fractured his neck in multiple places and that his season was over. “Don’t be like me kids,” he posted, “learn how to tackle (with) proper form.” By some miracle, he had avoided paralysis.

Known online as “Destroying,” De La Haye has nearly six million subscribers to his YouTube channel, making him the UFL’s most popular player. His notoriety dates back to 2016 when he was a kicker for the University of Central Florida and ran afoul of the NCAA for the advertising revenue he was earning off his channel. Eventually ruled ineligible, he would just be another player now thanks the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling that allow college athletes to be compensated for the use of their name, image, or likeness (NIL).

I hope his online followers who are football players heed his warning.

Only 5-9, 170, running downfield on the play, De La Haye looked like he was all helmet. Did the size of the modern model he was wearing contribute to his misfortune?

NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills likes to cite a 2021 study, also published in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering, to justify the league mandating the use of Guardian Caps in pre-season practices. Guardian Caps are the soft-shell add-ons worn atop helmets with the intent of preventing concussions. Being an add-on, they increase the helmet’s circumference and weight. At best, they reduce a player’s head acceleration in a collision by 9% and two players hitting heads simultaneously by a net of 18%.

Left entirely unsaid by Sills, however, is that the same study found a nearly 4% increase in the risk of serious neck injury from wearing the devices. That increased risk comes from making the helmet larger.

Fortunately, catastrophic spinal injuries are rare. But one is too many and, beyond motor sports, they are largely limited in athletics to hockey – from going headfirst into the boards – and football. Therefore, these efforts to decrease head trauma on the gridiron with bigger helmets but not fewer concussions, require reconsideration.

Meanwhile, football coaches at all levels from youth to high school to college to professional must — now more than ever – coach their players not to use their helmets as the initial point of contact.

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