If you haven’t heard about the NFL’s recent enforcement of helmet safety guidelines, you may have missed one of the most interesting, and at times ridiculous, storylines of this 2019 season. Following a one year grace period where old helmet styles worn by players like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Larry Fitzgerald were grandfathered in, the NFL is finally enforcing its rule that players can only wear models approved by the league and players’ association.
The NFL and NFLPA collaborated to assemble a skilled team of bio-mechanical engineers who for the past five years have been testing the protective levels of dozens of models of football helmets. The best performing helmets are labelled green. Suitable, but less protective models are labelled yellow, while the models labelled red are now completely prohibited from any field of play.
Older models, like Tom Brady’s Riddell VSR-4, used traditional foam padding. Newer models typically use Thermoplastic Urethane Cushioning, or TPU, which has been proven to absorb more impact than foam padding.
It’s not shocking the NFL is trying to take more control over player safety and hopefully reduce the instance of concussions by mandating newer and safer helmet models. After all, the league recorded an almost 16% rise in diagnosed concussions from 2016 to 2017.
In 2017, the league recorded 281 concussions, but just one year later, in 2018, the league recorded 214 concussions. That’s obviously still a lot of concussions in a league of roughly 2,000 players, but it did represent a 24% decrease from the previous season.
A growing national awareness of head trauma and its effects have no doubt played a part in this positive trend. By simply posting the helmet testing results in locker rooms last season, the NFL and NFLPA were able to give the players information they could use to choose their safety equipment.
The players, now educated with stats and facts, overwhelmingly chose right. At the beginning of 2018, only 41% of NFL players were wearing green labelled helmet models with another 17% wearing red labelled models. By the end of the season, 74% were wearing green labelled models with only 2% wearing red labelled ones.
32 players chose to use their soon to be banned models last year despite the risk. Why would players risk their brain health for a particular brand and model? I can’t say for sure, but I assume the choice was made more for comfort than for neglect of their brains.
Brady tried switching to a newer and safer helmet last year, but ended up returning to his long time model, the Riddell VSR-4. “You’ve seen something a certain way for a long period of time, so I like as much vision as possible with the peripheral vision,” Brady said last summer.
Brady has been one of the few players to openly voice his opinion on how the new rule affects his ability to do what he does best. “It’s a good thing. They’re trying to find helmets the players will wear that will absorb force better. I think that’s a positive,” Brady said at the Milken Institute Global Conference. “I still wear a very old helmet, probably out of habit. You talk about behavioral changes are hard; I’ve tried new helmets and I’m like, ‘Doesn’t work, get that out of here!’ You just have to get comfortable with it.”
I can certainly understand the position that perhaps the newer helmets negatively affect a player’s field of vision, and that appears to be the case with newly minted and forever troublesome Oakland Raiders wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Antonio Brown believes the new helmet that the rules mandate he wears protrudes out and interferes with his vision as he tries to catch football. The Raiders have been sending Brown other approved helmets to try out but, at this time, he is not interested in wearing any of them.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 9, 2019
Brown took it a step further and even threatened the league with civil action if he does incur a head injury this season while wearing the new helmet. It may sound crazy to hear someone is refusing newer technology that’s supposed to limit the effects of head on collisions, but what if Brown actually does have a point here?
If Brown, along with Brady, think the newer helmets limit their peripheral vision, they could be more susceptible to hits they may have seen coming and could have avoided while wearing their old helmets. A very similar issue arose in the past ten years, but in a much different sport, women’s field hockey.
Despite only two severe eye injuries being reported in high school field hockey between 1970 and the early 2000s, The National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS) mandated the use of protective eye wear for all field hockey players. There were several problems with the rule that actually lead to far more injuries than ever before in that sport.
The NFHS didn’t offer any advice on which models to trust and only two were even available, but they were designed for lacrosse, not field hockey. In lacrosse, players look ahead at the field, but in field hockey they look down and the caged eye masks greatly reduced players’ peripheral vision making it hard to gauge where opponents were while battling for loose balls.
All of a sudden, dozens of facial injuries were being recorded across the country as girls’ faces were being smashed by their opponent’s sticks because they couldn’t see them coming like they had before they wore the eye masks. The masks themselves even caused or worsened many of the injuries including painful facial lacerations.
“The basic difference is the reduction of peripheral vision,” said Terry Walsh, former Technical Director of High Performance at USA Field Hockey from 2005 to 2012. “You take away a major source of a player’s information gathering, and decision making is built around that information. That could be dangerous. If you don’t see things next to you, you go where you shouldn’t be going. Head collisions could be a major problem.”
Read that again. “Head collisions could be a major problem.”
As of Monday, however, Brown has officially lost his appeal to continue wearing his Schutt Air XP Advantage helmet, which was over 11 years old and was discontinued by Schutt back in 2011. Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter shot down any legitimacy to Brown’s argument in this articulate segment from ESPN’s First Things First:
Of course, conspiracy theorists like myself can see the financial benefit of a major national sports body suddenly requiring athletes to go out and buy equipment whether it makes their sport safer or not.
In the first four years following the mask mandate, over $5 million worth of eye masks were sold to high school field hockey players and it only caused them greater chances of injury. The NFL’s new helmet regulations were well warranted however, and the demand for greater technology has set the stage for those with the foresight to supply it.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, current and former players including Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith, Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin, Roger Staubach, and Jerry Rice have all invested in a Seattle based football helmet company called VICIS.
The VICIS Zero1 helmet, which costs a cool $950, is designed to better absorb impact and protect players from concussions. One interesting feature is a face mask that can flex like a car bumper in collisions.
The Zero1 is currently in use in over 1,200 high school programs across the country. If each program has around 100 students in it like at my high school, that’s already more than a $120 million profit nationwide! After millions of fans watch Rodgers play in it this year, that number is sure to go up, especially since the VICIS Zero1 tested above all other helmet models.
Maybe Brown should channel his frustrations by acknowledging that the pro football landscape is changing and instead of fighting it, he could be profiting from it.