As Americans grow more aware of the risk of brain injury tied to football — the country’s most popular sport — players and coaches are experimenting with the latest technology in a bid to make the game safer.
Advances in training have led to bigger, faster players who have made the high-impact sport more dangerous, particularly at the college and professional level.
US football fans have witnessed devastating instances of concussion-related brain damage and even death in players as young as high-school age. They include 16-year-old Ridge Barden, who collapsed after a hit in a game in Phoenix, New York, in October last year and later died at a hospital.
Such grim examples have spawned the first major efforts to redesign the football helmet since the 1950s, along with new rules for playing the game. The largest US helmet manufacturers, as well as independent designers, are testing novel ways to cushion big and small blows to the head, as well as to provide immediate relief in the minutes after a major injury.
Gordon Powers, the coach of the Model High School football team in Rome, Georgia, saw how important it was to do more to protect players two seasons ago. He was sending more team members to the bench who were showing signs of concussion.
“We were losing a lot of players that couldn’t play in the game on Friday night,” Powers said. “We would do a drill and if a kid got up real slow, was a little groggy, here comes the trainer [who would say]: ‘OK, that kid’s going to be gone for a week.’ We wanted to do something about it so the kids could continue to compete.”
Model High last year became one of the first high schools to experiment with a helmet cover developed by the Hanson Group of Alpharetta, Georgia, and Protective Sports Equipment of Edinboro, Pennsylvania. The cover, dubbed the Guardian, has 37 gel-filled pouches that fit over a helmet and cushion against helmet-to-helmet blows that are so dangerous that the NFL aggressively penalizes them.
Powers’ team wore the helmet covers only in practice because they were not sure local league rules would allow them to be worn in games. Hanson Group owner Lee Hanson said even that helps.
“If we can reduce a lot of the concussions that happen during practice and the compounding of all the hits over and over again, that’s going to maybe save somebody’s life or their brain and prevent future dementia,” Hanson said.
“The year before we used the Guardian, we had 10 to 12 kids that had to either miss a practice or two or even a game because of head-injury symptoms, and this year we had zero. So from that aspect, I’m sold on it,” Powers said.
Hanson sent out 600 samples for teams and players to test during last season and this year he aims to sell about 200,000 of them, for about US$60 a piece. None of the players that tested the Guardian last season reported a concussion, Hanson said, and testing by Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, found the product reduced the amount of shock felt through a helmet.
Research has shown that more than 4 million youth players are at risk. A study last year by Nationwide Children’s Hospital found football players aged six to 17 are treated in hospital emergency rooms for about 8,631 concussions each year. Many more concussions might go unreported.
A separate study by the hospital found that football was responsible for almost half of reported concussions among high school athletes, above ice hockey, soccer and other sports.