This hit that Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers laid on Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the NFC championship game nearly changed the course of football history.
Rodgers had suffered two prior concussions during the season. A third would have put him on the bench indefinitely. But, stunningly, Rodgers got up, spat the blood from his lip, and led the Packers to victory over the Bears and then over the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
Compared to the previous collisions that concussed Rodgers, the Peppers hit looked worse. So how, we journalists wondered, did he manage to escape, frontal lobe intact? According to Rodgers, the secret was his new, impact-dampening helmet. "As much as the new helmet feels uncomfortable…I'm really happy I was wearing it on that hit," Rodgers said. Discussion about the concussion-resistant helmet that saved the Packers' season burned around the Web.
But take a look at the replay. When Peppers connects, Rodgers's chinstrap slips off his jaw and slides up his face until it covers his mouth. The helmet floats above his head for a moment, before flopping back into place.
That is not how helmets are designed to work. When they are lab tested, the assumption is that they stick to the head. So did Rodgers's helmet really having anything to do with preventing a concussion? Who knows.
In fact, we know so little about protecting the brain—as it floats delicately in the cerebrospinal fluid—that it isn’t even clear whether a helmet is more protective when used as directed or when worn loosely, which might dissipate some impact energy. So perhaps it was not the well-designed helmet but the poorly designed chinstrap that saved the Packers' day. Either way, we shouldn’t expect Rodgers’s medical opinion to shed light on the subject.
Mark Kelso, a former Bills safety, has spoken publicly about how the rubber Pro Cap he used over his helmet saved him from concussions. However, he appears to be unaware that the Pro Cap makes the helmet thicker, which creates a longer lever arm between the helmet surface and the neck, increasing the chance of serious neck injury. Asking Kelso or Rodgers for their opinion is fine, but too many helmet stories with medical theses have no medical grounding.
It’s fine to ask a bird an ornithology question, but it’s a good idea to ask an ornithologist as well.
Technology Can Help, but Can't Cure
As a fan of your work, I'd just like to say stellar job as usual. Technology is certainly an element of this discussion. MRI has been used to identify nerve cell death and tissue loss to areas synonymous with certain disorders, such as (and specifically) Alzheimers, which is sometimes suspected of being caused by brain trauma, or at worst, associated with increasing the risk of it.
And thanks for Moore's Law and the work of some Princeton physicists, the day may be near when NFL doctors on the sideline are holding handheld MRI scanners. If you're bored by physics, skip the following sentence, but Igor Savukov and Michael Romalis have proposed that big MRI magnets are not required for detecting tiny magnetic fields, which they've replaced with magnetic sensors made from potassium vapor and helium gas: an alternative process that is not only cost-efficient but that allows them to even get "pictures" instantaneously (traditional MRI machines take 20 minutes or so to generate an image). But technology does nothing to address the end game here.
Something Ben McGrath noted, which is that should the game be changed to accommodate the concussion problem, they will be field related, and not equipment related. For example, changing the three point stance for linemen to make for less violence at the line of scrimmage, and instituting automatic fair catches on special teams. These are not catch-all solutions by any stretch, but they're probably more beneficial than say, a trainer with an accelerometer. I'm curious to know at what level the NFL is interested in addressing the problem (?). Would the NFL even entertain the idea of changing the rules, or is the dialogue minimal in this regard?
Nice piece. I've been following the debate about helmet technology as well and find it fascinating. Rodgers is a great example to consider both because of the great season he put together but also because of his highly noted concussions and the switch to the different helmet.
While I've been pleased that recently there has been greater transparency about the testing of helmets and greater publicity about which helmets do well in those tests, I have doubts about how much it will matter without basic rule changes such as the ones you mention. As medical professionals have noted, helmets can protect the skull itself but do not actually do much about the acceleration and deceleration of the brain inside the skull - which is really what is happening with a concussion. Dr. Ann McKee of Boston University, for example, is on record as saying that improved technology won't really have any impact at all in lowering the rate or impact of concussions and sub-concussive hits. The notion that the protection that players wear to shield their body from the game's violence might not make any real difference is obviously a bit devastating to hear.
But let's say for a moment that the improved technology does make a difference. One thing I wonder is who will have access to the new and better helmets? New equipment is expensive. How much, let alone how quickly, will the new helmets filter down to lower-level football programs, high schools, and youth leagues? These are the programs where they throw a fresh coat of paint on the helmet and maybe put some new padding on the inside, because they don't have the funding to pay for a whole new set of helmets. Will kids who play in urban and/or rural areas get them? Or will they be found more in wealthier suburbs and better-heeled schools?
@David, Being a big CFL fan, I often wonder how much the fair catch prevents concussions.
The CFL rules instead call for a "halo" space, in that the kicking team is penalized if they violate it.
Now, your average CFL player is, of course, going to be smaller than your average NFL player, so it's not an entirely apples-to-apples comparison. However, I'd love to know if anyone has studied the differences in concussions sustained on special teams in these leagues.
And Stephen also makes an excellent point: this wonderful new helmet technology can make us feel warm, fuzzy and better about ourselves....until parents see the bill. It's one thing to ask millonaires to better protect themselves, quite another to expect a working-class family to support their son's football dreams while keeping him as safe as possible.
Stephen and David, excellent points on rule changes/technological fixes. I think there are some scientists and engineers who feel that technology can help, but not fix the problem. But on the high school level, teams are often behind even with available equipment. For example, I was at a high school game a few months ago and picked up a few helmets that were all old enough that the inner padding had warped and/or hardened. Not a good situation to get the most out of the equipment.
Most of the rule changes have gone to penalize the sort of Patriot-missle-intercepting-Scud type hits; the safety with a 10 yard running start blasting a wide receiver. And yet, it's often (but certainly not exclusively) linemen who seem to be suffering from cognitive deficits or CTE later in life. So I wonder if major change would take some sort of rule that would really alter the essence of lineman-hood. I wonder what the long term brain trauma stats are like in, say, rugby, which is much more free flowing.
One more point regarding whether the best helmets would even be available to amateur athletes. The Packers actually refused to disclose the type of helmet that Rodgers lauded after the above hit. I'm told by reliable sources that it was a Schutt AiR XP, but I find it strange that the team would seek to hide this, or that the manufacturer would not proactively disclose it.
Football vs. Other Sports
The problem with NFL helmets is the game is so fundamentally violent that it's always going to be an imperfect solution. With MLB attempts to make safer helmets, there are only going to be a limited number of shots to the helmet over the course of a career. So if you can limit the danger in each of those shots, you clearly end up in a better place.
With the NFL, by contrast, you're still dealing with so many continual blows to the head. Even if you can limit the damage of the worst of the worst, I'm not fully convinced that even makes the sport safer over time. Take Aaron Rodgers. He has suffered two prior concussions. The safest thing for him is probably just to take an extended period off. But if this helmet does genuinely prevent him from suffering a blow strong enough to force him to do that, the end game is he then goes out there and takes a series of dozens of more shots at say 80 percent rather than one 100 percent shot followed by a time off period with careful monitoring of his condition. The latter is easier for us to identify but the former may in fact be a lot more dangerous. The "safer" helmet over the long haul may just end up having the consequence of getting rid of the canary in the coal mine.
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