Last Friday, I attended the summer meeting of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) at the Boston Harbor Hotel. It was hard to be inside on such a spectacular summer day, but made easier by the location of the meeting: in the Atlantic Room, directly above Rowe's Wharf, with a view of a sparkling Boston harbor filled with sailboats and power boats.
Notice that I said easier, not easy, because, as I sat at the back of the room I kept wondering to myself why I traded such a gorgeous day for a chance to listen to presentations by members of an organization that, frankly, has little credibility with me, and, I suspect, with others.
The event, if it can be called that, had been circled on my calendar for months. The room was packed with media, and at least one youth athlete safety advocate (me). We were there to hear the NOCSAE Board of Directors finally approve a football helmet performance standard designed to reduce concussion risk (which, to its credit, it did ).
I was also there to learn what, if any, amendments NOCSAE was prepared to make to its policy on helmet add-ons and third-party certification, which caused such an uproar when it was announced , and then almost immediatly clarified , last summer. (It decided to change from a process of self-certification - the same one used by the Consumer Product Safety Commission for youth bicycle standards - to requiring third-party certification, beginning in January 2015, in accordance with ANSI/ISO international guidelines, in particular, ISO:17065)
But, most of all, I was at the NOCSAE meeting to find out if it was making any progress towards adoption of a youth football helmet standard, which was first proposed three years ago in April 2011, and updated in January 2012 from proposed to draft . Here's what I found today on the NOCSAE website about that change: http://nocsae.org/media-newsroom/2012/09/youth-football-helmut-moved-fro... ).
After deliberation and consideration of input from multiple interested parties, the board voted in January 2012 to change the Youth Football Helmet Standard from "Proposed" to "Draft" so that more input can be received, and to permit development of that standard to follow a separate track. There was also concern that some may misinterpret the "proposed" status to indicate that NOCSAE has reached a tentative final decision with regard to the content and parameters of that standard, which is not the case. Significant hurdles remain to the development of a youth football helmet standard that will address the specific injury risks and biomechanical forces involved in youth football, and that data has not yet been well developed. Recently published studies  such as Daniel RW, Rowson S, Duma SM. Head Impact Exposure in Youth Football. Annals of Biomedical Engineering. 2012:1-6 is an example of the data being developed. And other programs focused specifically on injury epidemiology in youth football, some directly funded by NOCSAE research grants, are still in the data collection and analysis stage, and will provide additional science necessary to support an effective and reliable performance standard for youth football helmets. A Draft version of the standard is available here ND006-11m11.
Interestingly, the link to the "draft version of the standards" now takes you to a "Page Not Found." But if you want to download the .pdf of the "Standard Performance Specification for Newly manufactured Youth Football Helmets" the link can be found (for now) here: http://nocsae.org/wp-content/files_mf/1351111531ND00611m11MfrdYouthFBHel... . [If this link goes dead, please let me know, and I will send you a pdf.]
I was hoping that longtime NOCSAE board member, Dr. Robert Cantu, MomsTEAM's original concussion expert and co-founder of the Sports-Legacy Institute, would at least address the urgent need to move the youth helmet standard towards adoption before acting on any other standards, but no such luck.
One line in particular stands out in the youth helmet standard proposed in 2011:
7.4 The mass of the helmet including all accessories, attachments and facemask shall not exceed 2.866lbs (1.3kg).
From my work with football parents in teaching them about the Six Pillar approach  MomsTEAM has developed to concussion risk management, and from spending time observing the measuring, purchasing, fitting, and testing of hundreds of helmets on youth football players, my anecdotal experience is that kids prefer lighter helmets. The laws of physics (KE=0.5mv2) seem to suggest that lighter helmets, because they have less mass, create less kinetic energy.
Given the fact that kids under age 14, as Bob Cantu has repeatedly pointed out, have disproportionately large heads and disproportionately weaker neck muscles (which create what some call the "bobble-head" effect: a violent snapping back of the head when force is applied), it would stand to reason that a lighter helmet would protect younger kids better against the rotational forces that more and more experts, including Bob, believe cause the most serious concussions.
I also have to believe that, with a lighter helmet on their heads, kids would be less tempted to lower their head to use the helmet as a weapon (something that the kids who I interviewed for "The Smartest Team" documentary admitted they did).
Are there youth helmets that meet the 2.86 pound limitation? The only one of which I am aware is the SG helmet. All the rest weigh more than 2.86 lbs. I talked to representatives from Schutt, Riddell and Xenith last week about the weight of their youth helmets, but I had to really prod them to answer my questions. They conceded that they all weigh over 3.8 pounds; most are closer to 4 lbs.
Keep in mind that for an 80-pound child a 4 pound helmet represents 5% of their body weight. Given the weakness of their necks and the size of their heads in relation to their bodies, I am left to wonder how many times a youth football player lowers his head because the helmet is just too heavy to hold his head up during a game, especially when they get tired. How many helmet-to-helmet collisions, and helmet-to-ground collisions result? How many could be avoided were the helmets lighter?
I am not alone, of course, in thinking that there needs to be a youth specific helmet standard. I know that Stefan Duma and Steve Rowson and their colleagues at Virginia Tech-Wake Forest are collecting data on head impact exposure at the youth level, and hope to issue STAR ratings  next year on youth helmets in 2015. Indeed, it was their 2012 study that NOCSAE cited in its discussion of youth football helmet standards.
But I left to wonder whether we are moving fast enough. As Dave Halstead, a biomechanics specialist at the University of Tennessee and the Southern Impact Research Center testing laboratory who advises NOCSAE, noted at the meeting, "Our concussion problem has not gotten better."
Unfortunately, the meeting was abruptly adjourned shortly after the lunch break without the media and others, including me, having a chance to ask any questions. I was not surprised that they didn't want me asking questions. They knew I was in the room and that I have been a NOCSAE critic in the past, especially critical of their third party certification ruling last summer.
If I had had a chance to ask questions, here's what I would have asked:
As for the adult and youth football helmet standards and the third-party certification issue, stay tuned; there is much more coming on this later this summer, including announcements by two new groups who are working with full size adult and youth dummies to provide data, and who may just prove that there is no way to meet the revised " Standard Performance Specification For Newly Manufactured Football Helmets" that was opened for a year of comment last Friday.
Here are links to the previous articles on the NOCSAE 2013 statement and clarification on third-party add-ons: