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Guest Post: The ‘Anti-Concussion’ Helmet: Questionable Claims of Injury Mitigation and Obstructive Fears of Litigation

2013 June 22
by Paul Anderson

By: Vincent Imhoff, Esq.

The risk of injury has made football a controversial sport since its inception. Detractors have consistently denounced the sport as one of the most dangerous and even barbarous national undertakings, dangerous to everyone who participates, from the kids playing Pee-Wee to NFL power-hitters. Fans largely accept that danger as a necessary, perhaps overstated and forgivable feature of a beloved pastime. Even among those fans, though, it would be hard to find someone unfamiliar with at least one high profile impact injury- Joe Theismann’s badly broken leg or the devastating spinal cord injuries that ended the careers of Reggie Brown, Michael Irvin, Kevin Everett, Mike Utley and Darryl Stingley, the last two suffering life-long paralysis.

More recently, the greatest measure of public attention to NFL injuries has been drawn by the high profile rash of suicides among ex-NFL players in the past few years, including Andre Waters, Jovan Belcher, Kurt Crain, Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, OJ Murdock and Junior Seau. (Not to mention suicides by players not in the majors, like University of Pennsylvania star Owen Thomas.) Several, if not all, of the pro ball player suicides were diagnosed postmortem with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)- a terrible degenerative disease. (Because of brain trauma’s invisibility, CTE can only be diagnosed during an autopsy.)

CTE is triggered by repeated brain trauma and is responsible for a sad litany of symptoms that include depression and anxiety, confusion, intense headaches, sexual dysfunction, dementia, aggression, vision problems and light sensitivity, a host of cognitive deficits including memory loss and learning impairment, motor skill degeneration, suicidal ideation and quite possibly more we’re not yet aware of. Small doubt those symptoms explain why the prevalence of suicide by professional football players is now six times the national average.

A growing number of scientists, analysts and specialist claim that deficient helmets and a similarly deficient, decades-old certification standard system for those helmets are largely responsible for the unacceptable flood of concussive brain injuries NFL players repeatedly suffer. The group responsible for helmet certification is the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) and their certification process hasn’t changed in 40 years. Said process involves dropping a helmet against an anvil from five feet up to measure its effectiveness against “linear acceleration”- a straight hit.

Unfortunately, the current research suggests that most concussions and other brain injuries which contribute to permanent damage are more the result of “rotational acceleration”- a sort of brain-twisting that strains and breaks nerve cells and their axons. Current helmets are designed to withstand linear acceleration so they’re good at protecting the skull from fractures and to some degree lessening the jarring of the brain inside the skull. In 2002, helmet manufacturing giant Riddell released the “Revolution” helmet. It was touted as just that- a revolution in helmet tech and safety, fitted with more padding, etc. A study (funded by Riddell), even suggested that the Revolution reduced concussion risk by 2.3 percent.

The concussion statistics, however, remain static. Still, virtually all of the advances in football helmet “anti-concussion” technology are variations on the current helmet-protection philosophy- more padding in more places means less concussions. Of course, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Until rotational acceleration can be significantly reduced, concussions and the resultant brain damage won’t be either.

One of the most promising advances in anti-concussion technology comes from Sweden with the Multidirectional Impact Protection System (MIPS) designed by Royal Institute of Technology scientist Peter Halldin. (MIPS is also the name of the company founded to produce MIPS-enhanced helmets.) Halldin’s MIPS works, in broad strokes, by providing a sort of helmet-within-a-helmet that allows the head some “float” when impacted. That in-helmet leeway distributes the force of a collision before the hit rattles the brain around. On paper the MIPS system has worked well- it more than halved the rotational acceleration damage an un-MIPS-protected brain would suffer.

The technology has been adopted by a number of professional athletes, including some pro skiers. When MIPS representatives pitched their system to NFL (and NHL) helmet manufacturers, however, they were shocked to be greeted by leery looks and the sound of crickets. The big helmet producers, like Riddell, were apparently worried that accepting a seeming leap forward in concussion tech like the MIPS would be an admission that their current and past products are and were deficient. As Riddell was recently stung by a $3.1 million dollar suit a high school player filed after being paralyzed, the admission of helmet negligence, they fear, could open a floodgate of pro-baller suits. So there is a chance that football helmets less than half as effective at reducing brain injury than those enhanced by the MIPS are being kept in play because the latter may prove safer.

Even the MIPS best-case scenario, though, is no TBI or CTE panacea. One of the most frightening features of this conundrum is that smaller, “subconcussive” hits can incrementally contribute to the eventual development of CTE. So even jarring tackles that a player with a MIPS helmet takes, those doing a less profound amount of brain damage than concussive hits, can cumulatively lead to CTE without a single concussion ever being sustained.

The troubling conclusion is: it’s hard to imagine any helmet really effectively mitigating the brain-health risk posed by a 280-pound athlete slamming into someone as hard as he can. As some level of TBI seems like a football inevitability, we’re going to have to decide as a society how willing we are to accept the reality of players with brain injury.

Vincent Imhoff is a writer and Los Angeles criminal lawyer who acts as a managing partner at Imhoff & Associates, P.C. He earned his law degree at Chicago-Kent College and his undergraduate degree at Lewis University. When he isn’t writing or practicing, Vincent finds time to ski on his favorite slopes and get some jogging in.

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