Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
September 20, 2012
Despite Risks, N.F.L. Leaves Helmet Choices in Players’ Hands
By SAM BORDEN
In the National Football League, there are rules and restrictions on everything from how much white can show on a player’s socks to what sort of sweatbands can be worn on the wrists. Yet when it comes to the most critical piece of equipment — the helmet — the league provides little guidance and essentially leaves the decision up to each player.
Even as head injuries have become a major concern, the N.F.L. has neither mandated nor officially recommended the helmet models that have tested as the top performers in protecting against collisions believed to be linked to concussions. Some players choose a helmet based on how it looks on television, or they simply wear the brand they have been using their whole career, even if its technology is antiquated. As a consequence, despite lawsuits related to head injuries and the sport’s ever-increasing speed and violence, some players are using helmets that appear to place them at greater risk.
“Frankly, the league has been far more aggressive about thigh and hip pads than they have about ensuring that every player has access and information regarding helmets,” said DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the N.F.L. Players Association.
The rules governing helmets are not complex. The league stipulates only that any helmet certified by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, or Nocsae, may be worn. That broad standard allows players to use models that may be archaic or did not score well on specific impact tests.
Perhaps most important, while Nocsae’s standards are based on preventing so-called catastrophic injuries like skull fractures, those standards do not necessarily align with testing designed to simulate the collisions associated with concussions. This discrepancy, some observers say, could be likened to someone judging a modern car’s safety based only on its seat belts, with no extra credit given for models that also have air bags.
Two years ago, as public awareness grew along with the number of concussion-related lawsuits involving former players, the N.F.L. and the players union commissioned an independent study that identified three helmet models — the Revolution and the Revolution Speed, both manufactured by Riddell, and the DNA Pro, made by Schutt — as the top performers in protecting against collisions believed to be linked to concussions. But the league did not require nor officially recommend those helmets, opting only to send a memo to teams explaining the results. The reason, a league spokesman said, was that the study was not definitive with regard to actual on-field performance.
Additionally, while the N.F.L. holds twice-yearly seminars for team equipment managers, there is no formal oversight of team operations with regard to helmets, leaving the process in the hands of each player and his team.
For some players, the choice is easy: the helmet that looks best on TV is the one they want. Giants linebacker Keith Rivers, a five-year professional, said there was no doubt that “a lot of guys go looks first,” preferring more classic models. Modern helmets like the Schutt DNA Pro look “a little Darth Vaderish,” Rivers said, and are turnoffs to some even if they rate higher in safety tests.
Other players, particularly veterans, simply wear the helmet models they have always worn, some of which can be outdated. Tony Boselli, an offensive lineman who played in the N.F.L. from 1995 to 2002, said players “just wore what the teams gave us.”
“I didn’t even think about asking for something else,” he said.
Giants center David Baas, who is in his eighth N.F.L. season, said veterans can be hesitant to change anything related to their equipment. “Some guys don’t want to switch because they’re comfortable in the same one they’ve had since college or whatever,” he said. “I change almost every year to get what’s new, but lots of guys don’t. It’s just not on their radar.”
The Giants’ equipment director, Joe Skiba, fills out a profile sheet for each new player, complete with physical attributes, personality traits and equipment preferences, including what type of helmet the player wore previously. Any player who is interested can follow Skiba down a short hallway from the team’s main equipment workshop into a cinderblock-walled room with fluorescent lighting. Inside is a row of tall gray metal racks that slide open electronically, as if in a warehouse.
All types of gear fill the shelves, and two of the racks are dedicated solely to helmets. Skiba, a member of the league’s subcommittee on safety equipment and playing rules, said he spent so much time around helmets that he could tell a player’s model simply by looking at the marks the pads left on the player’s forehead. He talks passionately about the intricacies of helmet technology.
“If you’re excited about your job and show it, and make it clear that it’s important to you, the players will take that cue,” Skiba said.
With 32 N.F.L. teams, however, each with different budgets and equipment staffs, there appear to be variations in how helmet distributions are handled. While some teams, like the Giants, the Atlanta Falcons and the Miami Dolphins, are known as fastidious and well-stocked, the players union has received complaints in recent seasons, according to an official with knowledge of the criticisms, about teams’ having few models available for players to test. This is an important factor, players say, because they are reluctant to ask for a helmet they have not tried in practice.
There have also been accusations that teams have failed to obtain requested models in a timely manner, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
The Cincinnati Bengals and the Kansas City Chiefs were two of the teams cited, the official said. Rivers, who spent four seasons with the Bengals before joining the Giants, said that in Cincinnati “our team had used a lot of Riddells, and I wanted a Schutt, so I had to complain for a while.”
“I finally got one like weeks and weeks later,” he said. “Here, you say what you want and you get it.”
The Bengals disputed Rivers’s account and said the team was not aware of any complaints about his helmet procedure. “The Bengals will provide players with any Nocsae-approved helmet they request, and the club handles all expenses,” the team said in a statement. A spokesman for the Chiefs declined to comment.
Smith, the head of the players union, declined to identify or address specific complaints but said: “We are aware of disparities, and we have raised it with the N.F.L., not only this year but for the past several years. The fact that there continues to be disparities is unacceptable.”
Some observers question whether the league’s 23-year partnership with Riddell sends the wrong message. Because Riddell is the official helmet manufacturer of the N.F.L., it is the only brand name allowed to appear on helmets in use. For the roughly 30 percent of players who use a different brand, the rubberized plate where the brand name would appear contains a team logo.
The agreement with Riddell does not include specific provisions for preferred pricing or free items for N.F.L. teams, but as a general league policy, all equipment companies are allowed to provide favorable pricing. This can create perception issues: for example, Riddell offers a program in which a team that outfits a high percentage of its players in Riddell helmets — believed to be roughly 90 percent to 95 percent — is eligible to receive free helmets from the company, perhaps an incentive for budget-minded franchises.
Then there is the issue of consistency. When it comes to potentially mandating certain types of helmets beyond the Nocsae standard — based on a yearly study similar to the one the league and the union already commissioned, for example — the league says it believes such a measure would stifle innovation among the manufacturers. Some helmet manufacturers say the opposite would be true.
Kevin Guskiewicz, a professor at the University of North Carolina and a member of the N.F.L.’s head, neck and spine committee, said that permitting Riddell to be the only brand identified on the field could also be misleading to fans or to parents considering buying helmets for their children.
“I think we need to get away from ‘the’ helmet of the N.F.L.,” Guskiewicz said. “The fact that only one helmet can be advertised, the perception is there that they don’t have a choice. I think we need to educate them about that choice.”
A league spokesman said that when the N.F.L.’s agreement with Riddell ends in 2014, the situation will be re-evaluated. Until then, the circumstances surrounding helmet selection seem unlikely to change.
Ultimately, it is up to each player to make what is almost certainly the most important health-related equipment choice of his career — even if there is no guarantee that each player will be presented with similar information or options.
“This is our livelihood,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. “It’s one of the biggest decisions we make.”
Read More: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/21/sports/football/despite-risks-nfl-leaves-helmet-choices-in-players-hands.html?src=recg
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