Imagine that you drive a car straight into a building at 40 mph. Despite airbags and seatbelts, you’d probably feel lucky to be alive. But when an NFL wide receiver meets a safety head-on, we expect them both to get back up to play second down.
What’s the difference?
"In a car crash, you stop in a matter of feet. In an NFL impact, you stop in inches," one expert tells me.
In the eyes of physics, a big hit on the field can be just as devastating as a car crash—or in many cases, worse. We’re expecting a mere 1.5 inches of foam and candy shell to decelerate a player’s head gently enough to prevent their brain from bouncing around inside their skull and causing poorly understood, but permanent and devastating injury. After talking to some of the brightest minds in helmet design, helmet testing and football physics, the elephant in the room became clear: A concussion-proof helmet is a pipe dream. If the NFL wants concussion-free football, they’ll need to redesign football.
That said, conditions have never been riper for disruptive technologies to increase player safety. And for the first time in football’s 200+ year history, we’re finally developing the methodology to separate our best helmets from the decorative chunks of plastic.
Just two years ago, a team led by Dr. Stefan Duma from Virginia Tech released the first ever five-star crash rating for football helmets (PDF). It’s one reason that Duma likens the NFL of today to the auto industry in the 1970s. Originally, all cars were rated by a basic pass/fail crash test, and it wasn’t until Congress passed legislature for a five-star crash rating system that car companies had the impetus to do better.
Before Duma’s testing, the same was true for helmets. The industry’s only concern was whether football players could take a hit without fracturing their skull or sustaining subdural hematoma. Concussions—or any other traumas—weren’t part of testing. So designing helmets became a limbo bar. If a manufacturer came in anywhere below crushed skull territory, their helmet was thrown in the approved pile.
"Our rating system is the first that actually shows people that some helmets are better," Duma says. "One of the things we wanted to do was provide a mechanism for improved design. You’ll never have a concussion-proof helmet because injury is all about risk. But the better helmets lower your risk. That can be substantial. We found the best helmet lowered risk of concussion by 85%."
Duma’s top-rated helmet today is the Riddell 360. Priced at about $400, it features a hard polycarbonate shell to bounce off an impact and an energy absorbing foam lining to absorb the aftershock. The pièce de résistance is its huge, spring-like facemask optimized for forward-facing collisions. The entire ensemble is so effective that it can cut the peak force of a head-on-head impact in half when compared to the league’s worst helmets. (And it just so happens, Riddell’s VSR-4, discontinued in 2010 but still supported for factory refurbishing, is one of football’s worst rated helmets.)
But why should players wear helmets at all, one might ask. In the mid 20th century, as many as 30 players were dying a year due to head injuries. Helmets were the byproduct of the NFL’s first head-trauma scandal. The first were thin, hard leather. Then they adopted plastics, padding, and face masks. As we learned more, the focus quickly became, not just hard protection, but the shock absorption of softer materials. This approach worked. Since the 1980s, we haven’t had a single skull fracture in the NFL. Today’s Riddell helmet is bigger than its predecessors, but it’s ostensibly the same design we’ve been building on for decades.
Each product Riddell releases follows about two years of R&D. They create a prototype. They fill it with a human head surrogate (complete with a brain-like liquid center) used in pass/fail certification testing. They smash it to simulate a head hitting the ground. Then they use another human head surrogate called the Hybrid III (found commonly in the auto industry’s crash test dummies), then they pummel the helmet again, focusing on specific angles of impact more like one might expect in an NFL game. Following that, Riddell seeds their new line to teams to test out in real-world conditions.
But with all this research and testing, can Riddell promise a concussion-free helmet?
"I wish we could," says Thad Ide, SVP of Research and Product Design at Riddell. "With current technology and understanding, we’re just not there."
The problem is ultimately one of physics. All helmets work under the same principle. The force striking one’s head—acceleration mixed with mass—can’t actually be prevented. Physics says that energy has to go somewhere, right? What good helmets do is lengthen the duration of the impact itself (in the hundredths of a second range), reverberating energy through various structures and materials, to smooth a hit from a sharp, high-g strike to a relatively smooth curve of deceleration. Consider landing on a concrete floor or a pile of pillows. Which impact takes longer and which impact hurts more?
"I think that it’s true that football helmets are 85% as good as they’re ever going to get," Dr. Timothy Gay, University of Nebraska physics professor, writer, and industry helmet consultant tells me. "The optimal football helmet won’t be much better than the helmet you can buy right now because there are just physics restraints on the kind of padding you can use. We have a pretty good micro, nanotechnological understanding of how materials work. And basically, there are limits on what padding materials can do for a given thickness."
That’s an interesting point—what if we just increase the padding’s thickness?
"You can certainly make a helmet that’s concussion-proof," Gay tells me later, countering his own argument that had just sounded so convincing. "All you have to do is put 15 inches of foam rubber on the outside of the helmet." This idea may seem as ludicrous as wrapping a fully padded football player in one of those novelty sumo suits. But it just so happens, there’s a company doing pretty much just that.
ProCap is a soft wrapper for football helmets that’s actually been around since the late 1980s. Most famously adopted by San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Steve Wallace, this extra layer of padding is a means to further slow the impact of the blow. Its known downfall? The soft outer padding can look a bit silly. There are also claims—though no studies that I could find—that the friction generated by a soft outer shell could lead to a neck injury.
ProCap’s inventor wasn’t available for comment, but when I asked Duma about the potential of foam-wrapped helmets, he said that his lab hasn’t tested any, as the ProCap has generally existed as an add-on, not a self-contained helmet in its own right. But he did have the first reasoned red flag to this cult-worshipped design. In the 1990s, Duke researched the possibility of adding padding to the ceiling of cars to protect passengers in the case of a rollover. What they found was precisely on-point with football’s current fear, that the softness actually distributes pressure to the neck, which can cause horrendous spinal injuries. "The notion was out there, ‘Let’s put 4 inches of foam in the ceiling!’" Duma says, "but you may just end up with a bunch of quadriplegic people." It makes sense. Just look at your car. You have side doors full of foam or even airbags, but the ceiling is covered by a glorified sheet.
Another, equally enticing possibility is to model football helmets, not after football helmets, but after motorcycle helmets. Most football helmets are designed to be reworn until they’re refurbished. They have to serve play after play. But motorcycle helmets are designed differently. They use a more drastic energy-absorbing foam and a hard shell that isn’t afraid to crack. The downfall is that these helmets completely disintegrate upon impact—they’re totally ruined—with the interest of absorbing every bit of energy possible.
But David Rogers, VP of Concept Development at Gentex, the leading manufacturer of helmets for the Air Force (that owns companies that have designed everything from football helmets to special ops helmets), argues that single-use helmets are not the panacea they appear to be. Beyond the fact that players would need to pause each play to swap out helmets, even our best motorcycle helmets are only designed for 18 mph impacts (not our theoretical 40 mph maximum hit of two players running 20 mph). And as Rogers puts it, should you have a head-on collision in a motorcycle helmet at 18 mph, "you probably still have a concussion, but you’re not dead."
"Not dead" isn’t really any sort of improvement.
After going back and forth with experts with every conceivable conspiracy theory I could imagine, the consensus was obvious: A concussion-proof helmet is either impossible, or its requirements would affect play so drastically that it would either impair the sport or lead to other injuries. Even if we can mitigate the impact of the average tackle (and current helmets actually do this exceedingly well), the worst hits in the NFL are exponentially harder than the baseline. I’ve heard estimates that 5 to 10 hits in any given professional game are of concussion caliber. It’s no wonder so many of our players have been out this year with brain injuries.
"The helmet is the third barrier of defense," Dr. Duma tells me, when I ask what can change. "You have to work on the rules, and you have to work on the coaching."
Football is a brutal sport, and it always has been. The hits seem big only because they are. Sooner or later, driving a car into a wall at 40 mph is going to hurt you, with or without a $400 piece of plastic on your head. Every single helmet expert agreed that we can redesign football much more quickly and effectively than we can redesign the football helmet—in fact, most suggested the idea to me. The only question that remains is, are we actually willing to change football? Or do we value the spirit of the game more than the lives of the people playing it?