In recent weeks I have written a number of blogs about claims by equipment manufacturers that their products prevent or reduce the risk of concussions.
First, it was to call attention to a settlement between the Federal Trade Commission and Brain Pad, a mouth guard manufacturer, barring the company from claiming that its mouthguard reduced the risk of concussion.
Next, it was to deconstruct some carefully-worded claims in a press release by a company named Unequal Technologies touting supplemental helmet protective pads utilizing so-called CRT (concussion reduction technology).
Today, in the latest installment in my continuing series of blogs called "Buyer Beware," it's time to examine claims by three more companies, at least two of whom, like Unequal Technologies, manufacture football helmet pads, that their products prevent or reduce the risk of concussions.
First up is a product called ProCap ($79.95) from Erie, Pennsylvania-based Protective Sports Equipment, Inc. (PSE). In an August 6, 2012 press release on PR Newswire captioned "Concussion and Player Safety Take Center Stage in NFHS Ruling; Protective Sports Equipment Inc. Announces ProCap Is Approved for Football Game Day," PSE describes ProCap as a "safety accessory affording significant protection against concussion in football." The press release goes on to claim that, "[a]fter an extensive examination" by the Football Rules Committee of the National Federation of State High School Associations, the governing body for high school football, the NFHS had decided to permit the use of Pro Cap on game day in high school football.
To the casual reader, the headline implies an endorsement by the NFHS. But it is clear from reading the actual NFHS press release that NFHS did no such thing. All it did was to say that, because the evidence on whether ProCap conflicted with NFHS football rules by causing helmets to be altered in such a way as to decrease protection was "inconclusive," the NFHS wasn't prepared to ban use of such equipment and was therefore leaving "the decision as to whether to use or not use helmet attachments ... at the high school level and all other levels, [to] the discretion of ... teams, coaches, athletes and parents."
The NFHS was careful to note that it does not "perform scientific tests on any specific items of equipment to determine if the equipment poses undue risks to student-athletes or others." In fact, the NFHS said it was unable "to form a definitive conclusion as to whether" Pro Cap is "on balance, beneficial or detrimental." On the one hand, the group noted that, from "a common sense standpoint, padding would seem to be helpful. On the other hand, however, the larger circumference of a padded helmet increases the likelihood of contact, and there may be a change with respect to the coefficient of friction." The bottom line from the NFHS's standpoint: we just don't know.
But it's a long way from "we just don't know" to touting the ruling, as ProCap was quick to do, as an endorsement which "will benefit thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of football players at all levels of the game."
ProCap's website doesn't do much to clear up the confusion. It's tagline, "Keep your head in the game," is a very strange one, given the effort in recent years, especially by the National Football League and its youth football partner, USA Football, to take the head out of the game of football, to eliminate the kind of helmet-to-helmet contact, such as contact with the helmet of defenseless receivers and intentional head-hunting, that we know not only results in concussion but can sometimes lead, tragically, to catastrophic brain and spinal cord injuries, paralysis or even death.
It is just the kind of claim that Dr. Robert Cantu labeled "dangerous" in his new book, Concussions and Our Kids (look for my review of Bob's book next week) because players wearing such products may play more aggressively, believing they are somehow protected against injury.
Another product that the NFHS specifically mentioned in its August 2012 press release as not being a violation of its rules was ShockstripTM ($50.00). Shockstrip has been on my radar screen since June 2011, when I was introduced to the product by its inventor, Steven D. Novicky, D.C., a Canfield, Ohio chiropractor.
After the NFHS issued its ruling, Shockstrip sent out two press releases, which Dr. Novicky was only too happy to share with me in a series of recent emails. The first one bore the headline "First Time Ever NFHS Permits Use of External Helmet Device That Reduces Concussions On the Playing Field." The second was captioned "NFHS Steps Up Player Safety & Concussion Prevention With Ruling to Allow Use of Shockstrip Helmet Padding on Game Day", and claimed in the first paragraph that the product "significantly reduces short-term brain injuries, concussions, hearing problems and headaches."
But, as with ProCap, Shockstrip's claims simply don't withstand close scrutiny, and, at the very least, have the potential to be misleading. Nowhere in either the NFHS press release or its August 23, 2012 letter to Dr. Novicky advising him that use of the Shockstrip was not a violation of its rules, is there any language even remotely suggesting that the NFHS had in any way, shape or form bought into the company's claim that the Shockstrip product significantly reduces short-term brain injuries, hearing problems and headaches, much less that its ruling was intended to "step up" player safety and concussion prevention. "The NFHS does not endorse or approve football equipment. This ruling," the NFHS was quick to point out, "only means that permissive use of the Shockbox product is not illegal under NFHS Football Rules."
In other words, confessed the NFHS, we don't know, one way or the other. Facts are facts. Opinion and puffery - well, they are something else again.
Which, brings me, finally, to the third product the NFHS ruled could be attached to the outside of a high school football helmet without violating its football rules: the GuardianTM protective helmet cover ($69.95). GuardianTM manufactured by Alpharetta, Georgia-based POC Ventures in partnership with the creators of ProCap, is a one-size fits all, lightweight, soft shell football helmet cover that the company claims "reduces impact up to 33%" and has been scientifically tested at Penn State University, Wayne State University and Oregon Ballistics labs with "great results" and was field tested by over 600 players in 2011.
Unlike ProCap and Shockstrip, it doesn't appear that Guardian made a big deal out of the NFHS ruling. To its credit, Guardian Cap is quick to point out on its website that "No helmet or practice apparatus can reduce or prevent concussions." It claims only that linear impact testing and drop testing showed that the helmets equipped with the Guardian Cap reduced forces transmitted to the head, that field testing had yielded "outstanding results and lower head traumas," and that their product "was being worn by 6,100 players this year with only 2 reported head injuries at this time."
More specifically, the company admits that "Guardian Caps CANNOT prevent concussions but they CAN reduce impact and maybe, just maybe, reduce the possibility of injuries."
Voiding helmet warranty?
Another thing that parents need to know about these products is that they may void the limited warranty extended by the football helmet manufacturer.
According to Paul Jonff, Brand Manager at Rawlings Sporting Goods, "any alterations of, additions to, or component omissions or removals made to the [Rawlings] football helmet may affect the intended performance capabilities of th[e Rawlings] football helmet and void the football helmet warranty."
Glenn Beckmann, Director of Marketing Communications for Schutt Sports, told me in an email that, "Third party or after-market products, whether they are temporarily or permanently added to our helmets, will likely void the warranty on the helmets and transfer liability for the helmet to the owner of the helmet."
Beckmann went on to say that, "Until our helmets have been configured with these products, tested and certified under industry standards in these configurations and until the third-party or after-market products have been independently tested to show that they do not affect the performance of the helmet or the structural makeup of the helmet itself, we recommend that our helmets not be altered from their original configuration."
He also points out that the addition of permanent third-party or after-market products to a Schutt helmet "effectively prevents that helmet from being reconditioned and recertified to its original condition and configuration, which is a vital component of maintaining the safety standards and performance of the helmet. Ultimately, customers can choose to whatever they wish to helmets they purchase from us. But they should be aware of the potential consequences."
Guardian alerts potential customers on its website that its product "is classified by helmet manufacturers as an 'external enhancement device' and the use of the GuardianTM might void the warranty of the shell of your helmet," but promises that, "if your shell cracks and the helmet manufacturer refuses to replace it, citing GuardianTM usage as the reason, GuardianTM will cover the warranty on your helmet for up to five (5) years, provided that the helmet meets all NOCSAE reconditioning requirements."
Shockstrip does likewise, stating that "Because application of this product MAY void the original helmet manufacturer warranty, ShockstripTM will warrant your helmet under normal use for a period of five (5) years from date of purchase by the original purchaser ("Warranty Period") provided [the] helmet is properly maintained by a Factory Authorized Reconditioner. Proper maintenance requires reconditioning of your helmet at least every two (2) years by a NOCSAE Licensed Reconditioner using only new factory replacement liners in the reconditioning process."
As for ProCap, its website doesn't - as far as I can tell - alert customers to the potential voiding of the helmet manufacturer's warranty, nor does it promise, like Guardian and Shockstrip, to step in with its own warranty if that were to happen.
As I have been pointing out for quite some time, and as Bob Cantu writes in Concussions and Our Kids, "Parents and coaches are vulnerable, willing to spend freely to keep their kids safe in sports, yet wary of being taken advantage of." Like Bob, I advise parents, before buying one of these products, to do you own research. Check them out by visiting reputable sources on the Internet (like MomsTEAM) before you plunk down your hard-earned cash.
Will sending your son or daughter out on the football field with a helmet equipped with one of these products provide, literally and figuratively, an extra layer of protection? As Guardian Cap says, the most we can say at this point is, "Maybe, just maybe."
Until we know for sure, my advice has been and continues to be, "Buyer beware."
Stay tuned for Part Three, and Four, and ...For Part One, click here.
NOTE: Please read my Law review article that speaks to above: (March 2015)
Standard-Setting by Non-Governmental Agencies in the Field of Sports Safety Equipment: Promoting the Interests of Consumers or Manufacturers >>
Brooke de Lench is the Executive Director of MomsTeam Youth Sports Safety Institute, producer of THE SMARTEST TEAM: Making High School FootballSafer (PBS) and the author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins). Contact her at delench@MomsTeam.com
Do you know about a product that you think MomsTEAM should check out? Send an email to delench@MomsTEAM.com.