football player concussion injury controversy escalates

A couple of weeks ago I posted on the seriousness of the increased incidents of concussions to football players. The topic continues to receive much needed attention by the media. Yesterday, both the New York Times   click here and the Morning Call click here expanded the dialogue with an analysis of the helmet industry and the committee which sets the standards for athletic equipment known as Nocsae.  Joe Paterno also weighed in on the issue this week on a Big Ten coaches telephone conference. You may know that last week there was another serious spinal injury to a Rutgers player and injuries to 4 NFL players including DeSean Jackson of the Eagles.

 Nocsae is a volunteer organization largely funded by the helmet industry ( is that a little like the wolf guarding the hen house?). The helmets our kids are wearing bear the Nocsae seal of approval. The only existing test to which helmets are subjected is a crash test of sorts to see if the helmet cracks upon impact. In other words they are concerned only with fractured skulls and not concussions. Everyone would agree fractured skulls are a bad thing but so are concussions.      

 The design being used by most companies is over 30 years old. Concussion prevention was not – and is not – incorporated into these designs. In fairness to the industry there are limited studies addressing the physical forces which cause concussion during contact in football. Well, why isn’t the helmet industry and Nocsae involved in these studies? Don’t they want to make helmets safer and reduce the over 100,000 concussions that were reported last year to high school football player? The answer is – No. They are afraid of liability law suits. In other words – they say that if they try and make helmets more protective of concussions but aren’t completely successful then lawyers will sue them. Well it doesn’t work that way. If you claim that your helmets prevent concussions and market it that way, then yes you may be exposed, but that doesn’t mean that research should stop. It doesn’t mean that new designs shouldn’t be tried as long as we don’t go backwards then forward progress should be marked by the numbers of concussions that go down each year. Let’s advance the cause.

There is no hard and fast life expectancy for a football helmet. Nocsae suggests that after 10 years they should be taken out of service but over a hundred thousand kids are wearing helmets that are “too old to provide adequate protection”. Most schools send their helmets to various companies for “reconditioning” every few years.  They shine em up and replace the broken or missing parts and drop them from 60 inches to see if they crack. No analysis is done to see if the helmet is just plain worn out.  

Joe Paterno has been advocating the removal of faceguards from helmets for over 15 years. He believes that kids are leading into tackles and blocks with their heads rather than their shoulders. If you remove the faceguard they will be more likely to use their shoulders and body. Better to have a broken jaw or cracked tooth then in a wheel chair for the rest of your life.

Maybe JoPa is right – but the truth is, and everyone agrees, that physical training and advanced tackling techniques have not kept pace with the protective gear that football players wear to protect their head. Maybe the car racing industry is a good example. As cars got faster crash protection kept pace. Why can’t we do the same with football?

Dennis F Feeley


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