The National Football League preseason’s biggest story is a bit of a head scratcher.
The issue involves neither money nor preseason favorites nor even an injury to a star. However, injury — or the prevention of one in particular — is central to the matter.
Kindly consider the curious case of Raiders wide receiver Antonio Brown. He is entering his 10th year in the pros but, as far as the NFL is concerned, it will not be with the helmet he wore the previous nine, while with Pittsburgh.
The NFL and NFLPA list 34 helmet models that players will be allowed to wear this year and Brown’s Schutt Air Advantage, no longer manufactured, is not one of them.
On the other hand, 11 helmet models are prohibited and Brown’s is not one of those, either.
Lists aside, the NFL will not allow any helmet that is not certified via a drop test by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. NOCSAE will not test any helmets that are 10 years old or older, which Brown’s personal helmet is.
If Brown can find a Schutt Air Advantage made less than 10 years ago — and apparently he has, a compromise may be possible. However, such a helmet would still have to pass a drop test and that is not likely. According to NBC’s Mike Florio, the NFL also obtained a testable Air Advantage, made in 2011, and it failed.
Any Air Advantage that Brown submits likely awaits a similar fate. While it may not be on any NFL list, it is listed in Virginia Tech’s Helmet Star Rating System of “older football helmets” and receives two stars out of five. Only two helmets are rated worse among the 45 found on the Virginia Tech website.
One is the one-star Riddell VSR 4, the helmet Tom Brady has worn throughout his career, and among the 11 now specifically banned by the League. Brady, unhappy though he is, has been spotted wearing a Riddell Speedflex in practices so far this season. It is unclear whether it is a $1,700 custom-fit model or an off-the-shelf version that lists for $409.99, both of which are highly regarded by the NFL/NFLPA and Virginia Tech.
Yet, all models are not viewed with the same consensus. Three of the NFL’s banned helmets receive five stars from Virginia Tech. Meanwhile one of the allowed models, per the League, receives four stars from Virginia Tech and another only three. According to its website, Tech recommends only those it awards five stars.
Consequently, it is worth asking whether these ratings systems are all that reliable. They are based on tests done in mechanical laboratories. I visited Riddell 18 months ago. Senior Vice President of Research and Product Development Thad Ide was kind enough to demonstrate how his helmets are tested on their ability to absorb and disperse linear and rotational forces. His team also demonstrated how their custom-made helmets are manufactured.
The people at Riddell, however, were unable to show me how helmets perform in game or practice. No laboratory is able to do so.
The talking heads on ESPN have been defending the NFL’s stance with Brown, applauding the League for its commitment to safety based on laboratory tests, which until last week, the NFL had not done on Brown’s model.
Yet, the bulk of the field research indicates that no one helmet is particularly better than another at preventing concussion.
A study out of Virginia Tech, published online in 2014 in the Journal of Neurosurgery, looked at 1,800 football players on eight NCAA Division I teams between 2005 and 2010 and compared the no-longer-manufactured Riddell Revolution helmet (VT Rating 4-stars, second poorest of those allowed by NFL) to the banned VSR-4. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the higher rated helmet reduced concussion risk by 54%.
Not so fast my friends. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin published a study the same year in the American Journal of Sports Medicine of over 2,000 high school football players from the 2012 and 2013 seasons and found that there was “no difference in the rate of sports-related concussion across helmet brands, helmet age or helmet recondition status.”
Similar results from a much larger sample were reported by researchers at Temple University in 2012.
Thus, for price-conscious high school athletic departments, the better choice may be the Schutt Air XP Pro VTD II, which lists for $219.95, or the four-fifths-of-a-pound lighter Riddell Speed, which lists for $279.95. Both receive five stars from Virginia Tech and are approved by the NFL/NFLPA, “with no statistical difference in performance from the three top-ranked helmets,” which range in price from $950-$1,700.