SUNDAY SPECIAL / Collision Course / New helmets under scrutiny by NFL doctors

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A RECENTLY introduced helmet being worn by an

increasing number of NFL players has raised serious concerns among some NFL

doctors and trainers who believe the helmet might contribute to a greater

incidence of concussions than conventional helmets currently in use.

The helmet, produced by the Bike Athletic Company and endorsed by the NFL

Players Association, is being promoted as a lighter, more comfortable

alternative to the Riddell and Schutt helmets currently being worn by most of

the league's estimated 1,800 players.

However, Dr. Eliot Pellman, the chairman of the NFL's subcommittee on mild

traumatic brain injury, is worried that the new helmet does not provide

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adequate protection on the sides of players' heads and might make players more

susceptible to concussions. Pellman, the Jets' team physician, also charges

that the players' union is taking a careless approach by not actively alerting

their members to these concerns.

Other NFL medical specialists are concerned that not enough data has been

collected about the helmet and that players might be put at risk because it has

not been in use for very long. The helmet was introduced in 1999.

"That helmet is being touted as the best thing since apple pie," Pellman

said. "If that turns out to be the case, then I would be the first to endorse

it. But what happens if it's a Ford Pinto with the gas tank in the back?

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Doesn't anyone want to take responsibility for that?"

A research specialist who recently conducted a groundbreaking study of NFL

concussions has told league doctors that it is possible the helmet might

actually increase the probability and the severity of concussions because of

how it is made. The researcher, Dr. James Newman, president of Ottawa-based

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Biokinetics, tested the helmet and said it could make players more susceptible

to concussions when they're involved in high-speed, helmet-to-helmet collisions

that are common in the NFL.

An estimated 150 players suffer concussions each season, according to NFL

statistics, and many players have been forced into retirement because of

concussion problems, including San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young,

Jets receiver Al Toon and Chicago Bears running back Merril Hoge. Dallas

Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman suffered his third concussion in the past two

seasons in his team's opener two weeks ago, and now his career is also in

question.

The NFL's heightened awareness of concussions, coupled with Newman's

warning, has prompted several NFL doctors and trainers to advise players not to

wear the Bike helmets until further data is collected. At the very least, many

of the league's medical personnel are telling players about what they believe

to be the potential risks associated with the Bike helmet, which is being worn

by an estimated 100 players throughout the league. All-Pro defensive tackle

Warren Sapp of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, strong safety Darren Woodson of the

Dallas Cowboys, wide receiver Johnnie Morton of the Detroit Lions and defensive

end Trace Armstrong of the Miami Dolphins are among the players wearing the

new helmet.

It is also being worn by players in other professional leagues, including

the Arena Football League, and 20,000 to 25,000 high school and college

players, according to Bike spokesman Ed Christman.

Bike officials insist that this piece of headgear, which is one of the most

significantly re-designed helmets produced in the last 25 years, is safe and

that it meets currently applied standards for helmet manufacturing.

"We've made the investment to give the player another option with a very

playable product," said Jim Corbett, Bike's vice president of sales. "If people

aren't interested in change, I can't help that. We're interested in looking at

what's in the marketplace and trying to make the sport and the product better."

Several players who wear the helmet believe they are at no greater risk of

sustaining concussions and that the helmet actually is safer because its

lighter weight puts less stress on their necks.

But one player who used to wear the helmet, Jets center Kevin Mawae, has

gone back to the Riddell helmet because he recently discovered cracks on the

sides of the Bike helmet. That is the region of the helmet some NFL doctors are

most concerned about.

And while there have been few reported problems so far, Pellman and others

are concerned that more helmet-related injuries eventually could occur.

Bike officials are confident they have created a safe and effective product.

"There are some people who seem to have some concern about the fact that it

is flexible at the jawpads, but also a number of people who feel strongly that

there's no issue there," Christman said. "We feel positive about the way it

can protect the individual. We feel very comfortable with how the helmet

performs at that temple area.

"We think we've introduced a state-of-the-art helmet that essentially

catches up with the latest technology, and we wanted to give players another

choice. There have been very few changes in helmet design for 25 years, and we

feel we are providing a helmet that protects the athlete, fits well, is

comfortable and lightweight."

Christman said the use of lightweight polycarbonate alloys, combined with

foam padding that is similar to other helmets on the market, protects the

athlete while reducing the weight and subsequent fatigue often experienced by

players. However, a byproduct of the lighter-weight materials is that the

helmet is more flexible on the sides, raising the question among NFL officials

that it may not provide as much protection as other helmets currently in use.

Pellman points to a study that Newman recently conducted as reason for

concern. Newman undertook what he and other NFL and independent medical experts

consider a pivotal examination of mild traumatic brain injury by using video

replays of more than 100 hits that resulted in players suffering concussions

during NFL games between 1995-98. The results, according to Newman, showed that

slightly more than 70 percent of the concussions occurred on helmet-to-helmet

hits, and that the closer the impact was to the ear, the greater the incidence

and severity of concussion.

Those results, combined with follow-up tests by Newman on the Bike helmet,

prompted him to issue a cautionary note. Newman said his tests revealed that at

lower speeds, the Bike helmet performed as well as or better than other

helmets worn by NFL players. However, he said it performed significantly worse

at speeds that had caused concussions to players who had worn Riddell and

Schutt helmets, especially in impacts to the side of the head.

Several NFL team doctors, trainers and equipment managers have since

informed players of these concerns, and at least one team, the Giants, is

strongly recommending that its players do not wear the helmets because of the

safety issue. Pellman said he has told any player who has asked him about his

concerns.

Newman's research also suggests that the testing methods currently used to

approve helmets at all levels of football might need to be updated because it

might not take into account the increased speeds at which NFL players now

collide. The standardized tests, which began in the early 1970s, were devised

by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment

(NOCSAE). The Bike helmet, as well as Riddell and Schutt helmets worn by most

NFL players, have passed NOCSAE tests.

Pellman has warned his team's players about the Bike helmet, and said other

doctors and trainers-as well as union officials-should do the same. He is

upset, however, that the players association has not taken a more active role

in alerting players to these issues.

"Don't you think the union should offer a disclaimer about it?" Pellman

said. "If we're giving out information about our concerns, and they choose not

to say anything, then doesn't anyone want to take responsibility for that? What

happens if someone uses that helmet and has a concussion that ends his career?"

Mawae didn't want to take that risk after he discovered fissures in the

sides of his Bike helmet, and after he had been told that Kansas City Chiefs

running back Tony Richardson, suffered a laceration near his ear while wearing

the helmet during a preseason game in early August.

"Rather than take the chance, I went back to the old helmet," Mawae said.

"After hearing about the guy who got hit in the earhole [in Kansas City] and

after seeing a crack in mine, I thought maybe I shouldn't wear them.

"I really like those helmets. It was so much lighter. We hit twice as much

this year during training camp, and I didn't have the headaches that I had last

year with the other helmets, so I was feeling pretty good about it," he said.

"With the position I'm playing, because most of the contact occurs from close

range, I probably wouldn't have to worry about it a whole lot, but that's a

chance that I'm not willing to take right now. My career's more important than

that."

Mawae was aware of Pellman's concerns about the helmet before discovering

the cracks, and he had earlier advised some of his teammates not to wear it.

"I think it is a concern, because guys have asked me about the helmet,"

Mawae said. "[Rookie quarterback] Chad Pennington asked me about it, but I told

him that I wouldn't recommend it. Guys have to be made aware that there are

pros and cons."

Mawae said he wouldn't recommend the helmet for a quarterback, running back

or receiver because of concerns that they would be more vulnerable to the

high-speed collisions Pellman told him about.

But questions still persist. Chiefs team spokesman Bob Moore said it was

unclear if the laceration suffered by Richardson was directly related to the

helmet.

One of Richardson's teammates, tight end Kendall Gammon, wears the Bike

helmet and cites the lighter weight and comfort as the two biggest reasons he

prefers it over the Riddell helmet, even though Gammon might be more

susceptible to bigger hits because he runs pass patterns and is subject to

higher-impact hits than linemen.

"It's more comfortable to me, and everybody else that I've talked to says

the same thing," Gammon said. "I think it will take a little time for people to

trust the helmet, but it's like anything else that's new. I know other players

who are taking hits, and they're fine with it."

Woodson, who also is involved in high-speed collisions, said he has

experienced no problems with the Bike helmet. He has worn it since last season.

"I used to get dinged from time to time with my other helmet, but I have not

experienced that with the Bike helmet," he said.

Armstrong, who also served as the president of the NFL Players Association,

said he prefers the lightness of the Bike helmet, which weighs slightly less

than two pounds, compared with the Riddell and Schutt headgear, which weigh

about three pounds. Armstrong has been an outspoken proponent of helmet

research, and applauds Bike for producing the new model. He even appeared in a

promotional videotape of the Bike helmet.

"I like the fact that players now have a choice as to what type of

protective equipment to wear, and I welcome any innovation," said Armstrong,

who believes that player safety is now the top priority of the union. "We've

been assured by the people that manufacture the helmet that it's safe. It

passed the NOCSAE standards. If you compare the two, the Bike helmet

outperforms [Riddell]."

However, Giants trainer Ronnie Barnes, president of the Professional

Football Athletic Trainers Society, has recommended that his players do not use

the Bike helmets because of safety concerns. No Giants player has chosen to

wear it.

"I'm concerned about the flexibility aspect of them," he said. "For that

reason, I don't want our players wearing them yet."

But Washington Redskins trainer Bubba Tyer believes there is some merit to

the helmet, especially for those playing on the offensive line. "I like the

general theory about it being a lighter helmet," he said. "You talk to some of

my offensive linemen, and they'll tell you that in the fourth quarter, their

necks are tired with that big helmet and big facemask. If you can help take

stress off their necks, it's great. But at the same time, if it's not as

protective, it's not as great."

According to Dave Halstead, a technical adviser to NOCSAE and the NFLPA,

the Bike helmet presents no greater risk than any other helmet on the market,

including Riddell and Schutt. "The helmet performs very well," said Halstead,

director of Sports Biomechanics Research Laboratory at the University of

Tennessee.

Halstead said some Tennessee players are wearing the helmet this season. "I

think it's a unique design that's as safe as any helmet out there. I think

it's adventurous of Bike to design and build a product like this."

However, Dolphins trainer Kevin O'Neill is concerned about the fact that

the helmet is new and therefore does not have a long track record. He is not

telling his players to refrain from using it. At the end of last season, six

Dolphins players wore the helmet, and O'Neill expects that figure to rise this

season. O'Neill reported no problems with the helmet from players who wore it

last season.

"I don't want to imply that it isn't up to standards," O'Neill said, "but I

don't have a track record where people have been wearing the helmet for 10

years. If I'm being the right kind of trainer for my players, I need to tell

them that. I need to tell them, 'Guys, you make a decision, but when you make a

decision, make an informed one.' And the information is that not a lot of

players have worn this in a lot of practices or games, so we truly don't know

how it's going to hold up in the long haul."

Team doctors and trainers concede that no helmet currently available will

entirely eliminate the risk of concussions, and that the issue remains

problematic even with the Riddell and Schutt helmets. But many NFL medical

experts are more comfortable with the Riddell and Schutt helmets because they

have been in use for many years and are generally reliable.

"We've been in the helmet business for 70 years, so we're not all of a

sudden the be-all and end-all," said Harry Shay, a Riddell official who

supplies helmets to the Giants, Jets and New England Patriots. "We are

researching the quality of our shell and components on a daily basis. The

ultimate thing is to have the very best product for the protection of the

athlete."

It once was thought by concussion researchers that the hard outer shell

currently used by Riddell actually contributed to concussions because it didn't

allow much cushion when it made contact with other helmets or the ground.

However, Pellman said there is no evidence that this is the case. In fact,

Pellman said the harder shell is safer as long as there is sufficient padding

inside the helmet.

The Bike helmet issue has touched off an acrimonious debate between NFL

medical experts and the NFL Players Association, with the union charging that

the league is deliberately withholding results of Newman's study and purposely

undermining the credibility of the Bike helmet because of the league's

contractual affiliation with Riddell.

Some NFL officials counter that they believe the union may have a financial

relationship with Bike.

Former Jets running back Clark Gaines, chairman of the NFLPA's subcommittee

on player safety, said he does not believe the Bike helmets put players in any

more danger than Riddell or Schutt headgear.

Gaines also charged that some people in the league, which has a marketing

agreement with Riddell, have purposely questioned the integrity of the Bike

helmet because of its financial arrangement with Riddell.

"We've looked at all the documentation and all the research data that has

been produced on this helmet by Bike, and we're pretty much satisfied that it

passed the NOCSAE standards that Riddell is using now," Gaines said. "We would

not say that the players should use it if we didn't think the helmet was safe."

Gaines suggested that the union might be more willing to consider the

dangers of the helmet expressed by Newman and some NFL medical experts if NFLPA

officials were allowed to see the results of Newman's research.

"For us to fully understand their concerns, we need to see the research

data that they've produced," Gaines said. "As of this date, we haven't received

this data. We've seen a videotape of this research data. Well, videos are all

well and good, but when someone is trying to prove a point, I always say, 'Show

me the data. Don't show me videos. Show me the data so I can read it and

analyze it.' "

Armstrong said he too was waiting to see results of the study, but that the

NFL had refused to supply it. Armstrong said he met with Pellman in April in

Washington, D.C., and told him of the union's concerns, but that no follow-up

conversations have taken place.

"We, the players, are the ones generating that data, but they won't show it

to us," Armstrong said. "They've had that information since February, and

they've given it to team officials and head coaches and doctors and equipment

guys and trainers, but we don't hear about it until April. They know our

address. They know the phone number. We still haven't received anything."

Newman said he was told several months ago about the NFLPA's interest in

seeing the data, which is now being published in scientific journals. At the

time, Newman said he would be eager to meet with union officials and show them

the results. However, Newman said he has never received a telephone call or

written correspondence from any union officials.

Upon request, Newsday obtained a 20-page copy of a paper Newman has

submitted for peer review. Newman's work is in the process of being published

in scientific journals so its validity can be assessed.

Newman said he did not consider it appropriate to release further

documentation to Newsday that has yet to be published, but he said he would

share his findings with the players association.

"I would let them see everything," Newman said. "One of the stipulations of

our funding arrangement is that we must publish whatever we learn, which is

very important in terms of scientific credibility. We have to go through peer

review, but that doesn't prevent us from giving informal discussions about the

work. I have gone overboard to give presentations to people who are interested."

Newman was approached earlier this year by Bike officials who wanted him to

examine the new helmet. After doing tests, he expressed concern that the sides

of the helmet may not offer adequate protection. Bike officials then told

Newman that because the helmet was a prototype, it might not have been as

reliable as production models. Newman said he then received two additional Bike

helmets but has not tested them. "Until I receive some instructions from Bike,

I won't go off just testing helmets for my own personal interests," Newman

said.

"When the Bike helmet came out on the scene, I just put the flag up," he

said. "I said their research may in fact point to a better design. This helmet

may in fact be the answer for all the players that they won't get concussions,

but I'm concerned it may not be. I don't want players putting on a lighter

helmet or a more comfortable helmet believing they'll be less vulnerable to

concussion. If you want to wear a lighter helmet, then you can wear a hockey

helmet, but that's not going to offer you enough protection."

Some NFLPA officials also suggest that there might be a financial motive

for league doctors to question the Bike helmet. Given that Riddell is the

official supplier of NFL helmets, these officials suggest that it is in the

league's best interests not to have a competing helmet in use.

"People are trashing the [Bike] helmet instead of trying to look for a

better alternative that will possibly help the players reduce head injury,"

Gaines said. "We're after the safest possible helmet. If it's Riddell, so be

it."

Pellman angrily refuted the suggestion that financial gain would impugn the

integrity of the league's work in helping to better understand, and ultimately

reduce, concussions.

"What bothers me is that something that is a scientific, medical matter has

become politicized," Pellman said. "This has nothing to do with politics. It

has to do with science. We are talking about injury prevention here."

Some league officials suggest it is the players association that is seeking

to foster a financial arrangement with Bike, but union officials vehemently

deny that implication.

"Equipment managers have been trashing this helmet from the day it's come

out," Gaines said. "There has been a disinformation campaign put out about it,

that the reason the union is supporting it is because we're getting kickbacks.

I resent that. They don't understand that the union's responsibility is to

protect the players' best interests."

But Pellman said it's also in the league's best interests to ensure player

protection.

"Instead of politicizing this, why don't we work together to solve the

problem instead of destroying it?" Pellman said. "That's the part I don't

understand. This is really all about keeping the game safe. It's not about

politics. It's about science. It's about disseminating information, not about

hiding it."

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