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Health Care / HEALTH CARE

Football Helmet Safety Hits the Hill

The NFL Players Association's medical director says quarterback Aaron Rodgers was able to lead the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl win because of a teammate's watchful eye when he suffered a concussion late in the season.(TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

March 16, 2011

While the National Football League owners and the players union hash out their labor dispute, health and safety issues within the sport made their way to Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., will hold a news conference on Wednesday to introduce legislation aimed at protecting young players from sports-related brain injuries.

Separately, Reps. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., and Henry Waxman, D-Calif., are requesting a hearing on helmet safety.

 

The congressmen sent letters last week to House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Commerce, Trade, and Manufacturing Subcommittee Chairwoman Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., requesting a hearing in the subcommittee to discuss new helmet safety standards for children, young adults, and professional athletes. The committee is considering it, but a date has not been set.

The issue of helmet safety has come into the spotlight in recent years with more research into helmet design and concussions, which have been linked to early onset dementia and depression. Butterfield and Waxman were prompted to address the issue by the suicide of former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson in February.

Duerson shot himself in the chest after years of depression, which he felt was related to head injuries during his career in professional football. In a note he left to his family, he asked that his brain be studied for brain diseases.

“Football helmets were first designed to protect against skull fractures, but users get more than skull fractures. We need to take a look at this to see if there is any way to improve safety,” Butterfield said in a telephone interview. “We need to set some standards, because the ones now are not protecting players to the highest level.”

All helmets are tested to the standards set by the National Operating Committee of Standards for Athletic Equipment in 1973. The standards are not set by the government and don’t require testing for concussions, don’t take into account the physical differences in people’s heads, and don’t set limits on how long a helmet can remain in play, Butterfield said.

Many pro teams and youth leagues invest in reconditioning helmets, so they are cleaned and inspected for cracks before the next season. The National Athletic Equipment Reconditioners Association, based in Spokane, Wash., certifies that the helmets are tested and suitable for another year of play. But only 3 percent of reconditioned helmets are actually given safety inspection drop tests that ensure they're safe enough for the field, said NAERA Executive Director Ed Fisher.

“We recondition approximately 1.7 million helmets a year in our 29 facilities; a majority of them are football. We tested over 50,000 helmets last year, just under 3 percent of all the helmets,” Fisher said.

As athletic associations are not required to submit helmets to reconditioning, many in poorer communities are skipping the process, which costs $25 to $40 per helmet. According to NAERA, approximately 500,000 players used helmets that hadn’t undergone basic reconditioning.

Butterfield and Waxman’s hearing is receiving support from the NFL Players Association, which has been advocating for major changes in the helmets used in pro ball and youth sports.

The players union had asked Congress to step into the league's labor dispute before the March 11 expiration of the latest collective-bargaining agreement and the subsequent lockout to help solve pay and safety issues. While the fight seems like a squabble between millionaires and billionaires, one of the players' objections is to owners' plans to extend the season by two games, which the union says increases the risk of getting a concussion.

Until last year, the NFL denied a connection between helmets and brain injuries. At a hearing convened by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in 2010, the former co-chairman of the league's panel on head injuries said there was “not enough valid, reliable or objective scientific evidence at present to determine whether or not repeat head impacts in professional football result in long-term brain damage.”

NFLPA medical director Dr. Thom Mayer said the shift in the league's position has been because of compelling scientific evidence and pressure from players to make improvements.

The NFL has adopted a "battle buddy" system to make sure players get help when injured. Each player is assigned a teammate to look out for. A player's buddy makes sure after each blow that the player is alert, and reports any injuries to the medics.

Mayer said the battle buddy system actually helped the Green Bay Packers win the Super Bowl. When quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a concussion during a late-season game, wide receiver Donald Driver reported the injury. Rodgers sat out a few games to recuperate, then returned to lead the Packers to the championship.

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