In a laboratory in Charlottesville, football helmets are put on the heads of crash test dummies, those dummies take hits similar the kinds of hits players take on the football field, and then researchers measure how the helmet reduces the impact on the dummy’s head. This is repeated thousands of times, and researchers draw conclusions about which helmet models best protect football players’ heads.
Peter King visited that laboratory for the latest episode of his podcast, and he also visited the headquarters of Vicis, the company that has produced the top-performing helmet in laboratory testing three years in a row. The result sounds an optimistic note about the possibilities for better helmets making football a safer sport.
No helmet can prevent every concussion, but Dr. Ann Bailey Good at the Biocore lab in Charlottesville said the testing at her lab is significantly more advanced than testing on helmets in years past. While past testing was focused primarily on the kinds of impacts that cause skull fractures, modern testing is more comprehensive.
“We’re looking beyond skull fracture. We’re looking at things like concussion, and we know now from more recent research that rotational kinematics, or the way the head moves in a rotational manner, can influence whether a concussion happens or not. So the testing that is done now is done with a flexible neck and a test fixture which allows us to look at not only linear motion but also rotational motion of the head due to an impact,” Good said. “We’ll test the front, the side, the facemask, the rear, to assess how different helmets will attenuate the energy that goes into the head.”
In lab testing results released by the NFL and NFL Players Association, Vicis helmets have shown the greatest ability to reduce head impacts. Vicis CEO Dave Marver told King that the company studied the way the automobile industry has made cars safer by using materials that will crumple to absorb some of the impact of a crash, and so the Vicis helmet has a pliable outer shell that can absorb some of the impact without being permanently damaged, and a stiffer plastic inner core to protect the player’s head.
“In automotive safety you have cars that crumple,” he said. “So why not put those same things in a helmet? But it has to be done in a way that’s practical — you can’t take a helmet out of service after one collision. So we borrowed those engineering principles.”
We’re far from solving the problem of the perfect football helmet. For starters, it will take decades to determine whether putting better helmets on players today reduces the number of neurological issues that retired NFL players have as they get older. And cost is another issue: Better helmets tend to be more expensive helmets, and King’s podcast indicated that the Seattle Seahawks, for instance, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on helmets — which is fine for an NFL team but unrealistic for a high school team. But on one important issue facing football’s future, progress is being made.