Football helmet safety standards are currently set by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), a nonprofit corporation. The testing method used today is essentially the same as was established in the 1970s. The original goal was to prevent sudden death, skull fractures and brain bleeding in football, a goal that has been achieved. But the hot topic today in football is concussions, an injury todays football helmets cannot eliminate. The NFL acknowledged that the lack of a perfect helmet contributed to its decision to use big fines and the threat of suspensions to cut down on dangerous hits.
Earlier this month Inez Tenenbaum, the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing that her agency is working to improve the safety of football helmets. In a prior letter to the CPSC, U.S. Senator Tom Udall noted that sports are the second leading cause of traumatic brain injury for people who are 15 to 24-years-old, behind only motor vehicle crashes. According to Senator Udalls letter, every year American athletes suffer up to an estimated 3.8 million sports-related concussions, of which 300,000 result in loss of consciousness.
More than one million American high school students play football. The current standard does not address the risk of a concussion caused by less severe impacts or by rotational acceleration resulting from indirect hits that spin the head and brain. The standard also does not distinguish between helmets designed for professional, high school and younger football players. The “one size fits all” approach may not be appropriate for younger athletes who are not as big and strong as professional players.
Not just new helmets can be dangerous. In 2007, the F.B.I. investigated how it was that more than 200,000 amateur football players in the United States wore used helmets that were returned to the field without proper testing. The investigation concerned the purported failure of Circle System Inc., of Easton, Pa., in an apparent effort to save on labor and insurance costs, to perform a formal drop-testing procedure in which helmets are subjected to strong forces in different locations on about 2 percent of the helmets they handle as part of a safety protocol mandated by NOCSAE.
The helmets in question were used by football players ranging from 8-year-olds to Division I collegians. As a result of the investigation, the former president of Circle System, David Drill, pleaded guilty to federal charges last year and admitted that Circle System misrepresented helmet testing data, not following the national safety guidelines that were put in place to prevent head-related injuries. Drill also admitted submitting phony bids for work and bribing school officials.
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