Home » Blog » Brooke De Lench » NOCSAE Voiding of Certification For Sensor-Equipped Helmets: A Big Blow To Player Safety

Encouraging results

While only a limited number of helmets were retrofitted with the Shockbox sensor, the anecdotal evidence we gained from our admittedly unscientific beta test were very encouraging:

  • Newcastle's athletic trainer, Damon Glass, ATC, told me that the sensors were "the next best thing to being inside the [players'] brain basically and seeing the hit, because if I don't know whether it happens, there's lots of times I've been away from the play and never saw it, and I don't know if they've taken a hit or not. So it's gonna be the best thing for me to have a tool, you know, to assess them if they do take a big hit."
  • One of the Newcastle players, Collin Black, admitted to me that, "A lot of the guys, they don't want to come out when they get a concussion, and they know they have one, so the sensors, they don't really give them an option. When that sensor goes off, you got hit hard and the coaches are gonna pull you out no matter what. You can't hide it from them."
  • Another, Sheldon Dillman, said, "Previously, if you got hit and you were just pumped with adrenaline, you might not even feel it until the next quarter. So now at least, you know, if you get hit and the athletic director gets an alert, then they know, hey you need to take a break. That'll do a big part in football."
  • And a third Newcastle Racer, Chase Prudhome, told me he was glad that the sensors were being used: "It's helped a lot of kids out. We've actually had two of the kids come out of the game with their helmets going off, and they really did have a bad concussion. When the sensors went off, we have a girl that's always on the iPad waiting for the sensors to go off, and she goes over to our trainer, which goes to the coaches and they get them off the field as quickly as possible."
  • Many of the players, in a private conversation the day I went duck hunting with them, told me that, quite frankly, "We do not want to have the responsibility of reporting our concussions any longer. We want the sensors."

I am not a scientist, nor a biomechanical engineer. As such, I recognize and appreciate that there are some in the concussion community, especially scientists - who by their very nature are appropriately cautious in endorsing any new technology without validation via rigorous, peer-reviewed testing - as well as some of the helmet manufacturers themselves, who believe that impact sensor technology has not advanced sufficiently to warrant their widespread use in contact and collision sports.

Benefits of sensors numerous

But I also know that there are others - MomsTEAM included - who believe that impact sensors, despite being a new and developing technology, can make the game of football, and other contact and collision sports, safer in a number of important ways right now by:

  • helping to identify athletes who continue to participate in contact sports despite suffering undiagnosed concussion;
  • providing data that can help in research into the effects of sub-concussive impacts;
  • helping to address the problem of chronic underreporting of concussion; 
  • giving coaches a tool to identify players whose poor tackling and blocking technique is causing them to experience an abnormally high number of subconcussive blows so they can be taught to tackle and block in a way that minimizes helmet-to-helmet contact; and
  • providing a way to help take the athlete's ego and attitudes about concussion (3) out of the reporting process, thereby making sports safer.

It isn't just the helmet sensor companies and some leading concussion experts who believe that hit sensors represent a promising new technology with commercial application beyond the realm of research (where they have been used for a decade).  The fact that Riddell, the leading football helmet manufacturer (at least in terms of market share) has shown that it shares their enthusiasm by introducing a sensor-equipped helmet for general, not just research use, bodes well for the use of such technology going forward if, and it is a big if, the NOCSAE ruling doesn't bring the development of such products to a screeching halt.

Ill-timed or perfectly timed?

The problem is that NOCSAE's decision could not have come at a worse time (or perfect time, I guess, depending on your point of view): just as football teams, from the youth level to the National Football League, are gearing up for the fall season. If it is not reversed or modified, the NOCSAE rule is likely to have potentially devastating real-world consequences, not just on third-party manufacturers but on player safety.

In fact, in just the first two weeks since the ruling issued, it already appears to be having a profound impact on the manufacturers of after-market products, with some reporting mass cancellations of orders, which could drive some of them out of business.

The ruling is also likely to have a profound, and some critics (myself included) fear, negative effect on football player safety. While NOCSAE consistently points out that adherence by football helmet manufacturers to its standard - first issued in 1973 and still designed to certify only that the helmet can withstand the high impact forces necessary to fracture a player's skull - is ostensibly voluntary, it is followed by governing bodies at every level of football.

NOCSAE's action to void certification for helmets equipped with third-party add-ons and require retesting and recertification is thus likely to make schools and youth football programs extremely reluctant, if not entirely unwilling or legally unable, to allow such add-ons out of liability concerns, with the action coming at the worst possible time, just as programs are gearing up for the 2012 football season. 

I recognize that NOCSAE's decision may have some technical merit; and that it may be to some degree be necessary to protect the integrity of its helmet standard by weeding out what one football helmet representative characterized in an email to me as "snake oil salesmen" marketing supplemental padding products that, despite their overblown claims, likely do little if anything to reduce, much less prevent, concussions, and may, at least in theory, compromise the ability of football helmets to protect players as the manufacturers intended. Indeed, I have been critical of the marketing tactics of some of those products' claims in two blog posts last year, one in August, the second in September

But I also share the concerns expressed, not just by the helmet sensor companies directly affected by the NOCSAE ruling, whose manifold criticisms of the new rule are reported in detail in my article, but by no less an important member of the youth football community as Jon Butler, Executive Director of Pop Warner, who see the ruling as a "real step backwards" in the movement to make contact and collision sports, particularly football, safer.

Throwing baby out with bathwater

Like Butler, and the CEOs of many of the helmet sensor companies, I have called on NOCSAE to modify, if not completely reverse, its decision, at least with respect to the installation of lightweight sensors in football and other helmets that I know first-hand from my experience with the Shockbox sensor, have no effect whatsoever on the performance and structural integrity of a football helmet.

Like the helmet sensor companies, I firmly believe that NOCSAE's ruling, insofar as it de-certifies helmets equipped with impact sensors, is shortsighted and amounts to "throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

Like them, I urged Mike Oliver, NOCSAE's longtime Executive Director and General Counsel, in a lengthy and wide-ranging telephone discussion last week, to consider at the very least a revision to the ruling to allow helmet sensor companies to obtain certification from NOCSAE for helmets equipped with their sensors by submitting test results from independent labs, instead of being forced to rely on the helmet companies themselves, who clearly have a vested interest in not allowing for certification of sensor-equipped helmets, both from a competitive (e.g. Riddell) and liabillity standpoint (all).

The sad reality, as I explain in detail in my article, is that NOCSAE, by its own admission, is as concerned with the liability of helmet manufacturers as it is with player safety, not surprising given the super-heated legal environment in which they now operate.  It appears that the new rule is weighted heavily towards the legal end of the scale, and that is extremely unfortunate. 

"The NOCSAE position seems contrary to the safety goals of the organization as I understand them," said Greg Merrill, CEO of Brain Sentry, one of the helmet sensor companies directly and adversely affected by the NOCSAE ruling.  "Some of the items NOCSAE is potentially blocking absolutely have safety benefits to the participants in these sports. Given the serious nature of brain injury and the challenges sports have in coming up with solutions, NOCSAE needs to find ways to support innovation."

I agree.

I also agree with Merrell's assessment of the NOCSAE rule as having a myriad of adverse consequences (what a lawyer friend calls a "parade of horribles") in terms of pure research and concussion product R & D, and, most of all, in artificially limiting consumer choice, as schools, youth programs, and parents who buy helmets and the athletes who wear them will be forced to either go without the benefit of sensors or utilize sensors that are not attached to helmets. 

Consumer choice

Like Merrill I believe that the ultimate decision about whether to utilize any third-party helmet add-on, whether it be a supplemental padding product such as Guardian Cap, or a helmet sensor such as SafeBrain, should, absent clear and convincing evidence that their use makes a helmet less safe, should be left to the parents of the athletes and the athletes themselves.

In the final analysis, while I acknoweldge that NOCSAE has every right to protect the integrity of its standards, it needs to be balanced against the right of consumers to make choices, and to the market to determine winners and losers, with as little government or private interference in that process as possible.  The goal should be to provide a level playing field so that the best company with the best technology wins. That's called free enterprise.

To the extent the NOCSAE tilts that playing field, to the extent it puts the protection of helmet manufacturers ahead of player safety and consumer choice, I think it was a bad decision.

I hope that the new NOCSAE ruling will not bring technological innovation in helmet safety to a screeching halt, that it will end up being no more than a speed bump on the road to improved safety for helmeted sports.

But, in the meantime, it should be up to schools, coaches, parents, athletic trainers, team doctors, and the athletes themselves to weigh the benefits and risks of supplemental helmet padding and helmet sensors, and to make the decision - hopefully an informed decision - that is most likely to improve player safety, NOCSAE certification or not.

The Smartest Team documentary DVD cover/posterBrooke de Lench is the the producer and director of the PBS documentary "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer," For more information about the documentary, click here. She is also author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com. Her e-mail address is delench@momsteam.com.