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Throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

NOCSAE Ruling On Helmet Sensors Generates Controversy

Voiding of helmet certification if helmet modified in any way criticized as a step back for player safety

Technical merit?

On its website, NOCSAE says its helmet performance standards are "based on accepted and recognized scientific data." But NOCSAE's rule de-certifying helmets with third-party add-on products, unless they have been re-certified by the helmet companies, to whom the third-party company would have to go for testing, cites no data suggesting, much less establishing, any instance in which such third-party product actually did what NOCSAE, and presumably the helmet manufacturers, assume they are doing: change or alter the protective effect of the helmet.

It is one thing to say, as did Rawlings and Schutt, that the addition of third-party after-market products to their helmets might void the limited warranties they extend to end-users, but it could be another to require third-party manufacturers of concussion risk reduction equipment to obtain NOCSAE certification from helmet manufacturers under a standard that, it freely acknowledges, does not test a helmet's ability to attenuate concussion risk but continues, as it has since being first established in 1973, to insure only that helmets protect against the wearer's head against the extremely high-level force that would otherwise fracture skulls.

Leaving aside serious questions which have been raised - by me and by others - about the validity of claims made by some of the supplemental padding companies about their effectiveness in reducing concussion risk, one thing is clear: they aren't intended to provide additional protection against skull fractures. Nor are helmet sensors products designed to provide any additional protection; they are intended to help those standing on the sports sideline identify athletes who have sustained hits that may warrant closer observation for signs or symptoms of concussion or removal from play in order to conduct a sideline evaluation using one or more available screening tools (e.g. SAC, SCAT3, Maddocks questions, King-Devick, BESS).

As Mike Oliver, NOCSAE's longtime executive director and general counsel, noted in an extended comment to a December 2012 article on new helmet technology in Popular Science magazine, "Manufacturers regularly make football helmets that exceed the performance requirements under the NOCSAE standard. Exceeding the requirements of the NOCSAE standard is done in part for statistical quality assurance reasons so that even with 3 standard deviations applied, a helmet's performance would still meet the NOCSAE standard."

To be sure, that is not the same as saying that the added weight of a supplemental padding product could not seriously and adversely affect the performance characteristics of a football helmet, as Oliver noted in January 2011 interview with knoxnews.com in which he pointed to research which showed that bigger and heavier helmets could lead to increased number of other injuries.

Not all experts, though, agree with Oliver's assessment. Asked whether he thought a helmet sensor weighing anywhere between less than an ounce (SafeBrain) and 3.5 ounces (Shockbox) affixed to a football helmet with adhesive tape was likely to so degrade the ability of a 4-plus pound football helmet to withstand the extremely high impact forces required to cause a skull fracture, Albert King, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Biomechanics at Wayne State University, told MomsTEAM he thought that unless "you need to drill into the helmet, it should be okay." "I think this is more of a legal issue than a biomechanical issue," King said.

According to Impakt Protective's Crossman, "we, along with other sensor companies - Brain Safe and GForce Tracker - have data galore showing they are safe and meet the NOCSAE standards. We even have data from testing in the Schutt labs."  What data exists about supplemental helmet padding products (Guardian Cap) appears to show the same thing.

Such evidence thus again begs the question: what scientific evidence gives NOCSAE even a reasonable suspicion that such products could so degrade the helmet's ability to meet the NOCSAE standard that it would no longer pass muster under a standard, that while tightened since first issued in 1973, is, by Oliver's own admission, extremely easy to meet?