SUNDAY SPECIAL / Collision Course / New helmets under scrutiny by NFL doctors
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
Pellman angrily refuted the suggestion that financial gain would impugn the
integrity of the league's work in helping to better understand, and ultimately
"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
"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