Known Design Defects of the Modern Football Helmet – Opinion

Oct 12, 2018

By Kimberly Archie
To understand football helmets, their design and defects, we have to look at their manufacturing standard and how they are tested to measure whether they meet this voluntary standard, or not.
There is only one standard that helmets are tested and are required to meet. This standard is applied to both adult and youth football helmet models, those sold to NFL players, as well as to children as young as five years old, weighing as little as 35 pounds, and all athletes in between. This standard was promulgated by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) and created by founding members including the NCAA, the National Federation of High Schools, the Junior College Athletic Association, the National Athletic Trainers Association, the Athletic Goods Manufacturers Association and the American College Health Association. 
In an NCAA newsletter dated June 1970 an article titled, “Committee to Set Equipment Standards” stated, “Besides the desire for greater safety in competitive athletics, an important reason for the formation of the committee is the number of lawsuits being contested today based on substandard equipment.”
In 1973 the NOCSAE introduced standard and licensing agreements with manufacturers that allowed its seal on helmets for minors even though it did not have a standard specific for minor children.
It has become fairly common to see headlines like the one in the Washington Post on Sept. 11, 2017 that proclaimed, “High-tech helmets designed to lower risks of concussions make NFL debut.” Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Modern football helmet designs were created to reduce the severity and frequency of skull fractures and facial injuries. They were not designed to prevent concussions or brain injuries, and in fact, the consequences of the helmet’s design to prevent skull fractures, and the failure to consider such important factors as weight, trapped heat, and vibrations due to impacts, actually increased the risk of brain injury, brain damage and disease.
The headline should have read, “New helmets try to reduce design defects known for decades to increase the risks of brain injury.”
The American football helmet presents an unreasonable risk of harm to the user because the helmet was not designed for minors, there are known design defects, inadequate fitting instructions and inadequate adult manufacturing standards applied towards an even more vulnerable population: young athletes.
The Center for Disease Control’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System of emergency room visits shows that overall injuries for athletes 18 and under playing football were down 14 percent from 2009 to 2015, yet head injuries increased by 38 percent, and concussions by 59 percent, during the same time period.
Currently, there is not a mandatory or funded central database for high school football injuries. There are smaller studies, such as one from the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which have shown dozens of catastrophic injuries, including deaths, among the high school injuries tracked in male sports in the United States since 1982. Football historian Matt Chaney at Four Walls Publishing tracks football injuries and lists considerably more data than any other database on catastrophic injuries and death. His blog is a great resource for information on football history, safety and injuries.
California case law says, “A manufacturer, distributor, or retailer is liable in tort if defect in the manufacture or design of its product causes injury while the product is being used in a reasonable way.” (Soule v. General Motors Corp (1994) 8 Cal.4th 548 560 [34 Cal.Rptr.2d 607, 882 P2d 298).] Failure to comply with this most important safety guideline could result in serious, catastrophic injury, or even death.
There is compelling evidence that the failure to establish and utilize a specific youth standard for minor athletes, failing to provide reasonable and adequate protection from child maltreatment, exposes children to an unreasonable risk of catastrophic injury and death. The potential risks present a substantial danger when used in a reasonably foreseeable way, and ordinary consumers who are minor children are not able to recognize the potential increased risk.
The helmets worn by minor children ages five to seventeen have a label that states the helmet “meets NOCSAE standards” even though there is no standard for helmets intended for minors, which misleads the consumer.
Manufacturers use age to instruct the user on which helmet to wear, not height, weight or proper performer readiness to carry the additional weight of heavier helmets. Manufacturers recommend that ninth graders and under should wear youth model helmets while adult models are recommended for ages 15 and older, even though they are still minors. There is no available science that shows children are mini-adults and can reasonably wear safety equipment for adults. 
“A greater degree of care is generally owed to children because of their lack of capacity to appreciate risks and avoid danger.” (McDaniels v. Sunset Manor Co (1990) 220 Cal.App3d 1, 7 {269 Cal.Rptr. 196], citing Casa v. Marlhardt Buick, Inc. (1968) 258 Cal.App.2d 692, 697 700 [66 Cal.Rptr. 44].)
It is highly probable that the adult manufacturing standard applied to child athletes creates an unreasonable risk of catastrophic injury and death.
The testing does not mirror live play, including only testing helmets to surface and not helmet-to- helmet, which is a common mechanism of injury in football and can lead to the death of a child athlete. The helmet is also tested without the facemask and only using a head form with neck, not full crash dummies that would be more reasonable to predict human collisions.
NOCSAE founding members claimed the need to create its own organization because ASTM was “too slow”, yet since 1973 the only substantive change to the pass-fail severity index, or SI measurement of linear force used by NOCSAE, was lowering the pass-fail threshold from 1,600 to 1,200 [What do these numbers mean? What unit of measurement?] in 1997. Helmets with lower SI were grandfathered in and never removed from the market. 
In its own 2005 newsletter, NOCSAE admits the “SI number was not designed to be a qualitative data point. There is no reliable data from which it can be concluded, for example, that a helmet with an average SI of 300 is measurably better at preventing any particular injury than a helmet with an SI of 400 or 500. The number simply is not designed to make that qualitative measurement.”
SI scores are not made available to the public.
The NOCSAE knowingly passed off helmets as reasonably safe when it had no specific standard for minors, based on their unique anatomy, or by its own admission, a system in which to measure effectiveness of the product.
By the 1960s, experts knew that uncovered hard plastic shells would be used by players to hit their opponents, whether on purpose or due to the inability to choreograph the violence of the sport, yet NOCSAE did not make any effort to set a standard to require a soft outer layer even though the technology and materials were available. 
NOCSAE’s own admission in a press release in June 2016 states, “NOCSAE has been researching the potential benefits of creating a separate standard for helmets designed for youth. At this time, there is insufficient data to suggest a distinct helmet mass limit for youth or other similar performance changes would provide more injury protection or protect against injury risks not already addressed.” 

NOCSAE Says Data Does Not Yet Justify Youth Helmet Standard

The conduct on the part of football helmet manufacturers and related entities is reckless and grossly negligent to the safety and wellbeing of minor children, and as such, departs from the standard of care owed to a minor in a collision sport. That departure is directly and causally linked to an increased risk of brain injury, damage and disease.
To say football helmets prevent concussions or brain injuries is false advertising. 
Kimberly Archie is the Founder of the National Cheer Safety Foundation, USA Sport Safety, and Child Athlete Advocates.


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