WASHINGTON — The NFL doesn’t mandate helmet type, and not all professional football players are choosing helmets with the highest safety ratings, researchers reported here.
Researchers who watched games to document helmet design found that players wore 13 different makes and models, which ranged from the worst safety ratings (1-star) to the best (5-star), Raymond Colello, PhD, of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and colleagues reported at the Society for Neuroscience meeting.
Older players were more likely to wear 1-star helmets than younger players, they found.
“Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Adrian Peterson all wear 1-star helmets,” Colello told MedPage Today. “If you lose one of those players, your team might not make it to the playoffs. You’d think the coach would say, ‘You can’t wear that helmet anymore.'”
The NFL doesn’t have strict rules about helmets, possibly because of fears of litigation, Colello said. “If they tell you to wear this helmet and you get a concussion, you’re gonna say, ‘You told me to wear this helmet.’ So they’ve said, ‘Let’s pass this on to the player. We’ll tell them about the ratings, but it’s up to them.'”
Colello said that’s unusual for a high-impact sport. NASCAR and Formula 1 racing, for instance, mandate that “everyone uses standardized equipment and it’s always the latest and the best. That’s why these guys can walk away from 200-mph injuries.”
The star rating system for football helmets, which assesses the ability to reduce the force of an impact, comes out of Virginia Tech. It was developed in 2011 and has been validated in additional studies, Colello said, with additional work on the impact of rotational forces, which wasn’t initially included. It’s the only helmet rating system that exists, he added.
Initially, Colello’s group reached out to NFL team athletic directors for information about players’ helmets but got no response. He and his and students reviewed football games themselves to identify every helmet worn by each player. They watched every game of week 13 of the 2015 season and every game of week 1 of the 2016 season.
Helmet choice also varied by position. While offensive and defensive lines went for safer helmets, quarterbacks and wide receivers opted for less safe helmets.
Colello acknowledged that, because the safer helmets are larger and incorporate more cushioning, they can shrink a player’s field of vision.
The researchers also found that of the 165 players who suffered a concussion in 2015, most didn’t switch to a safer helmet the next season, Colello said.
Additional impact studies showed that when two 5-star helmets collide, the head experiences 30% less force than when two 1-star helmets collide, and 10% less force than when two 4-star helmets collide. Interestingly, Colello said, when a 5-star helmet collided with a 1-star helmet, the safer helmet’s ability to protect the head was diminished by 30%.
“You’re only as protected as the worst helmet out there,” he said, calling on the NFL to change its helmet policy to prioritize player safety.
Linda Noble, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin, who wasn’t involved in the study, said the need to protect football players’ brains is paramount, but if a helmet “changes the way you play the game,” it could be detrimental.
“The loss of visual field seems to be a big deal,” she said. “Those questions need to be assessed between the players and those designing the helmets.”
Colello disclosed no relevant relationships with industry.