Senator Tom Udall’s proposed bill on football helmet safety, announced last week, is a step on the road to national sports concussion reform. An analogy might be the scandal over the quality of the body armor secured for our troops in Asia. Policy questions are rarely about hardware. They’re about software – the human decisions to put our military in harm’s way abroad, or to expose our youth to unacceptable risks in fun and games at home.
We seem headed for helmet hearings in Congress in some form, on either Udall’s initiative or that of Democrats at the House Commerce Committee. What’s important at this point is to make sure these C-SPAN exercises don’t just scapegoat the manufacturers, which are almost certainly producing progressively improved helmets. Nor is the villain of the piece NOCSAE – the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, an overmatched trade oversight group. The root problem is that there’s no such thing as a concussion-proof football helmet.
Let’s direct the fire where it belongs: at the industry’s upper-echelon custodians in the National Football League. Uncontrolled collisions are what have driven television rights fees and merchandise through the roofs of municipal-financed stadiums, and the league has done as little about the problem as it could get away with. Meanwhile, at great public health cost, concussion syndrome permeated down through amateur sports in frightening dimensions we are just beginning to quantify.
The situation with exaggerated promotional claims of helmet companies is exactly parallel to the NFL’s slowness to reorient coaching and rules on the field once blocking and tackling were supplanted by head-hunting.
Says Sean Morley, a former wide receiver who is now on the NFL Players Association executive committee: “Generally what they’ve done is try to blame players for how violent the game has become. They had ample opportunity to look at the science and make practical changes and give coaches an opportunity to coach players, and give the players realistic expectations of how they should change the way they hit. And they didn’t.”
The league controlled much of the basic research on concussions, largely through grants to NFL-affiliated doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, led by Dr. Joseph Maroon, who is also the “medical director” of World Wrestling Entertainment. Such phrases probably belong in quotation marks in pro football as well as pro wrestling.
The past body of commercially compromised articles on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, published over the last decade in the prestigious journal Neurosurgery, shows a pattern of obscuring the magnitude of concussion syndrome while pushing Maroon’s band-aid diagnostic software, known as imPACT, which is now used widely in sports at all levels.
In 2006 Maroon co-authored a Neurosurgery article, based on NFL-funded research, about the new “Revolution” design of the league’s official helmet supplier, Riddell. It turns out that the sample for Riddell’s claim of a 31 percent reduction in concussion risk was a three-year survey of 2,141 high school players in western Pennsylvania. Imagine a tobacco company bragging about reduced tar and nicotine results from a cohort of emerging smokers, rather than entrenched two-pack-a-day addicts.
In January, when Udall referred the Riddell promos to the Federal Trade Commission for further investigation, Maroon neatly triangulated, insisting that the company had distorted his findings. At the top of the Congressional witness list should be both Maroon and one of the other co-authors of the Neurosurgery article, Riddell chief engineer Thad Ide.
The public also needs to hear from Riddell’s competitors. A Boston mouth-guard manufacturer, Mahercor Laboratories, claims that as many as 30 percent of football concussions are transmitted through the jaw and dental architecture. Mahercor’s product is used by the New England Patriots, whose reported concussion rate is consistently among the industry’s lowest, but the company says it can’t get a league-wide foothold despite its recent embrace by the American military.
Vincent Ferrara, the CEO of Xenith, an innovative helmet manufacturer, told me, “Xenith has welcomed the input of the federal government in this issue. We need a more level playing field for new technologies to take hold.”
Even more than a level playing field, along with lip service about increased awareness of head injuries, we need the unfiltered history of the $9-billion-a-year National Football League’s management of a generation-long phenomenon, which is responsible for a decline in gross national mental health. It’s not just the helmets. It’s the concussion crisis, stupid.Archive