Fast Company, a progressive magazine known for its tech savvy and risk-taking, examined the helmet and concussion issue in the NFL in this month’s issue.
To tackle the helmet and concussion issue, the magazine looked at the average NFL hit from a scientific viewpoint.
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.
Fast Company reminded readers that helmets were developed to try to eliminate skull fractures. However, even with new technology in helmets, FC said there is no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet.
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.”
The article suggested using a new paradigm for NFL helmets, such as bringing back the foam-padded cap from the 1980s or modeling football helmets after motorcycle helmets. None of them solves the ultimate issue.
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?
– Bill Bradley, contributing editor