When former NFL player Jason Johnson went looking for a cutting-edge football helmet, he wasn’t just protecting the middle school kids he coaches. He was also looking out for his sons.
Johnson, 39, an Indianapolis Colt turned financial adviser, chose the locally produced SG youth helmet over the more traditional designs made by Riddell and Schutt for his Brownsburg Junior Bulldogs in Brownsburg, Ind. His son Kye, 12,
“The game of football is a contact sport, so you are going to see injuries. I wouldn’t say at an alarming rate by any stretch. This was us trying to be more proactive instead of reactive in trying to protect our players,” Johnson said.
Emergency rooms in the United States treat more than 170,000 children and teens with sports-related concussions and traumatic brain injuries each year. The most common causes of the country’s 1.7 million annual head injuries are falls, auto accidents and assaults – not sports.
Concussions are a “mild injury with serious risk,” said Arthur C. Maerlender, director of pediatric neurophysiological services at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. Maerlender said the long-term injury risk comes from receiving a second head injury while recovering from a previous concussion.
Motorsports equipment inventor Bill Simpson designed the SG helmets, which are made of a carbon-Kevlar composite – the same material used in racecar chassis.
“It hurts when you punch a wall because there’s no give,” said Ashlee Quintero, national sales manager for SG helmets. But carbon-Kevlar flexes to absorb impact, more like punching a pillow.
Concussion symptoms include loss of consciousness, repetitive speech, visual disturbances, memory problems and amnesia. Most athletes recover in about two weeks.
“Some have three or four concussions and have a normal life. Others can have two and have a learning deficit that follows them for the rest of their life,” said Dr. James Goodin, a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, trauma surgeon and former high school football player.
After a head injury, Goodin said families are anxious to know how long it will take for their child to recover and how functional the child will be. But there is no surefire way to know.
“I tell them – everyone’s brain is different, everyone’s injury is different and the capacity for healing is different,” Goodin said.
While children call Goodin’s office to ask when they can play again, “parents across the board seem to have their heads on straight in terms of their kids’ best interest.”
Brooke De Lench is one of those parents. As founder of MomsTeam, a youth sports information website, De Lench advocates for improved football safety measures for children, including better helmets, conditioning and training. But she also advocates for keeping kids active and on the field.
“We need to be educated, and the media needs to step up and educate parents the right way,” De Lench said. “We have a bunch of kids who are sitting around and not playing sports because we have parents who are scared to death.”
De Lench, who directed and produced the PBS documentary “The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer” and wrote the book “Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports,” has reason to worry. Nearly one in five adolescents were obese in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Media coverage of youth concussions has affected parents’ opinion of football. A Robert Morris University poll found that 40 percent of adults support a ban on contact football for pre-high school students, and nearly 50 percent would ban it before middle school.
Still, football remains popular. Seventy percent of respondents to a HBO Real Sports/Marist Poll said the benefits outweigh the risks.
Coach Johnson and his football league have been working to reduce those risks while keeping the athletic benefits. Athletic trainers are on the sidelines at all Brownsburg games, so medical professionals – not parents or coaches – evaluate injuries. The league partnered with a hospital to provide the services.
“People always wanted the best, but if you don’t have the right tools then you can make a bad decision,” Johnson said. “Everyone is much more aware, going on the side of caution.”
The 2 pound SG helmet encourages safe tackling techniques when paired with proper conditioning and training, Johnson said. It’s less fatiguing on the neck compared to youth helmets that weigh 3 or 4 pounds. Kids can keep their heads up and avoid helmet-to-helmet collisions. It also changes their psychology.
“The larger helmet, it feels like you’re in this battle gear, this armor, that you’re invincible,” but a light helmet reduces the feeling invincibility, Johnson said.
In one year on the market, SG has sold 2,000 helmets through its Indianapolis showroom and other nearby shops. The company is also giving helmets away. Indiana MayhemFootball University National Championship
But established brands Schutt and Riddell aren’t standing still. Both expend significant resources in outreach, appearing at youth events to promote player safety and proper helmet fitting.
Glenn Beckmann, a spokesman for Schutt Sports, demonstrated Schutt designs at the Pop Warner Superbowl in Orlando, Fla., this month. Beckmann said his company spends about a million dollars in research and development each year, plus another $2 million when it introduces a new helmet.
Beckmann said that Schutt has eliminated traditional foam liners from all but its budget helmet designs and has developed new materials to absorb hits. A properly fitted and inspected helmet is critical, he said, emphasizing that Schutt does not market its helmets as reducing the risk of concussions.
“Parents need to understand the symptoms of concussion. The NFL and professional football need to do their part and stop celebrating these violent hits,” Beckmann said.
Meanwhile, Easton-Bell Sports, the parent company of Riddell, has more than 50 employees working in its laboratories and test facilities to develop and test helmets, said Thad Ide, an engineer and senior vice president of research and product development.
“We come to work every morning and sit down and work on trying to put better and better protective headgear on the field,” Ide said. “We view it as a challenge to ourselves.”
Riddell provided the “official helmet of the NFL” beginning in 1989, but the NFL announced it will terminate that arrangement following the 2013 season. Veteran and injured players have sued both Riddell and the NFL over head injuries.
Brian McCarthy, spokesman for the National Football League, which settled a $765 million lawsuit with former NFL players in August, said his organization is working with equipment manufacturers and the U.S. Army to develop safer equipment. The NFL also contributes money for research, including a $30 million National Institutes of Health grant, the “Heads Up” tackling program and funding for an Institute of Medicine report that showed current helmet designs may not prevent concussions.
“We’re not going to wait for science. We’re improving equipment, changing rules and further educating players, parents and medical staff,” McCarthy said. “We want the best available equipment now.”
But that doesn’t make it any easier for Dr. Goodin, who sometimes has to break the bad news to young athletes – that they can no longer play the game they love.
“It breaks my heart,” Goodin said. “I think football is a safe sport. We need to work on more reasonable safety measures, certainly more research and development into protective gear.”
Reach reporter Gavin Stern at email@example.com or 202-408-2735. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.