JOHN DOHERTY: Football helmet add-on’s benefits unclear

The Times of Northwest Indiana (Munster, IN)

May 9, 2022

At the time, the decision did not attract much notice.

The NFL published a story on its website. ESPN dutifully followed suit. However, an internet search of other major outlets turned up nothing regarding the league mandating certain players wear the Guardian Cap during practices for the first half of training camp.

During the NFL’s annual meeting late in March, the decision was made jointly by the Competition Committee, Health and Safety Committee and all 32 NFL owners. The mandate is for linebackers, linemen and tight ends to use the devices in every practice up until the second preseason game. Thereafter, those same players will be strongly encouraged to continue doing so for the remainder of the season.

According to an email I received last week from Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s Chief Medical Officer, “Guardian Cap represents a crucial part of our larger efforts to mitigate head impacts and advance health and safety of our players. Guardian Cap is a helmet shell add-on that is worn over the helmet to reduce the severity of head impacts and is a premier example of innovations funded through the NFL’s HeadHealthTECH Challenge. In 2017, we awarded Guardian Cap $20,000 in grant funding to help advance the development of its technology and have informed further improvements in the product since with data and insights gathered via helmet impact studies conducted by NFL- and NFLPA-appointed biomechanical engineers.”

Created in 2010, the one-size-fits-all accessory is being used, according to its manufacturer, “by 200+ colleges, 1500+ high schools, and 500+ youth programs.” The benefits claimed include helmet preservation, lower temperature within the helmet and a reduction of g-forces by up to 33%.

The operative phrase in that last assertion is “up to.” In his email justifying the use of the Guardian cap, Dr. Sills cited the results of the joint NFL/NFLPA study that found the “Guardian Cap results in at least a 10% reduction in severity of impact force if one player is wearing it, and at least a 20% reduction in impact force if two players in a collision are wearing it.”

Published in August 2021 in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering, the study actually did not paint quite as rosy a picture as Sills claimed. Looking at both the Guardian Cap and and ProTech Helmet Cap, the authors reported, “In linear impactor tests, the (Guardian) reduced head impact severity as measured by the head acceleration response metric (HARM) by 9% relative to the helmets only, while the ProTech reduced HARM by 5%. While both products significantly improved the performance of the football helmets tested overall, effects varied by impact condition and helmet model with the add-ons worsening helmet performance in some conditions.”

Ominously, those same engineers reported on a second study in the same article that “resulted in a mixture of increased and decreased HARM when either add-on was (used).”

A study out of Purdue and published in 2017 in the Journal of Athletic Training was also equivocal. Describing their study, the authors wrote, “We dropped the helmets at 3 velocities on 6 helmet locations (front, side, right front boss, top, rear right boss, and rear) as prescribed by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE). Helmets were tested with facemasks in place but no Guardian Cap and then retested with the facemasks in place and the Guardian Cap affixed.”

Ultimately, they determined, “The Guardian Cap failed to significantly improve the helmets’ ability to mitigate impact forces at most locations.”

One must wonder, then, why the push by the league for the apparatus? The appearance of doing something?

Furthermore, if the Guardian Cap is so wonderful, why not use it on all positions, for the entire season and in games? I have no quarrel with Sills’ finding that there is a much higher frequency of head contact in practice prior to that second preseason game. Yet, high force impacts to the head happen all season, especially in games. When one occurs, brain tissue does not care whether it is game or practice and what point in the season it is. Dr. Sills has not yet responded to my return email.

Another concern not addressed by either of the cited research-related articles is the added circumference and weight that comes with using a slip-on. Both investigations focused on linear, straight line forces and not on the rotational forces that have been identified in other studies as the primary cause of head trauma and would theoretically be magnified when an object’s size is increased. It is like the difference between a baseball and a softball. The latter is easier to hit and has a larger sweet spot.

All of this brings us to NOCSAE and liability. No interscholastic or intercollegiate program will use a baseball, softball, football, or lacrosse helmet that has not been certified by NOCSAE. At least they should not because, if one did, the school would be entirely liable for any injury incurred while wearing an uncertified helmet.

According to NOCSAE, in a statement released in 2018, “The addition of an item(s) to a helmet previously certified without the item(s) creates a new untested model. Whether the add-on product improves the performance or not, the helmet model with the add-on product is no longer ‘identical in every aspect’ to the one originally certified by the manufacturer. When this happens, the helmet manufacturer has the right, under the NOCSAE standards, to declare its certification void.”

In all these efforts to protect the head, the neck has gone largely forgotten. If a football player suffers a catastrophic cervical spine injury while wearing an add-on, I would expect the helmet manufacturer to follow NOCSAE’s advice.

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    The Times of Northwest Indiana (Munster, IN) May 9, 2022 At the time, the decision did not attract much notice. The NFL published a story on its website. ESPN dutifully followed suit. However, an internet search of other major outlets turned up nothing regarding the league mandating certain players wear the Guardian Cap during practices […]

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