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Reversal by NFL on helmet testing raises concern

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nfl_helmet_testing_0.jpg By Alan Schwarz
July 24, 2010

Two months after concurring with a congressman that the data was “infected” and declaring that the testing program would be abandoned, the NFL’s committee on head injuries joined the league and its players union in publicly releasing the results of helmet testing that outside experts described as potentially compromising the safety of youth athletes.

The testing program had been spearheaded throughout 2009 by the former leaders of the NFL research group, all of whom resigned in the past nine months after strong criticism of their conduct from the House Judiciary Committee and outside medical experts.

The co-chairmen of a newly constituted committee, Dr. H. Hunt Batjer and Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen, said after facing Congressional barbs in May that they would discard all work of their predecessors.

That included the suspended helmet testing, Batjer said, because of its “poor methodologies” and “inherent conflict of interest” that were “not acceptable by any modern standards.”

On Friday, the league and the union released memoranda to club officials, players and the news media that explained how three of 16 helmet models — two by Riddell, an official league licensee, and one by Schutt — had performed best in testing. The tests were conducted by two research labs that have no affiliation with the league and its committee; the data was subsequently analyzed by independent researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University.

The six pages of carefully worded results occasionally cautioned that the tests focused only on open-field tackles resulting in concussions during NFL games, adding near the end that the results “cannot be extrapolated to collegiate, high school or youth football.” But the public designation of three helmets as “top performing” in tests believed to simulate only the highest 1 percent of forces to cause concussions, at a time when football head injuries are national news, led critics to fear that the safety of the nation’s four million youth football players would be compromised.

“I believe that the document is accurate and that every word in it is true, but they imply something to the lay reader — namely that these top-performing helmets are safer against concussion,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, a senior adviser to the NFL committee and director of the Neurological Sports Injury Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“It is recognized that helmets designed to work at high-impact forces, while efficient at protecting against skull fracture, are not necessarily effective at protecting against concussion,” Dr. Cantu added. “The danger in making this public is that even though it’s not stated, some people can infer and imply from this statement that the so-called top-performing helmets are safer.

“I fear that it will be used to market helmets to youth players. In reality, they may be more unsafe for the lower forces known to cause concussions, primarily in youth football.”

The release of the information prompted Representative Anthony D. Weiner to write a critical letter to Commissioner Roger Goodell. Weiner is a Democrat from New York City whose grilling of Ellenbogen and Batjer had led them to say they would discard the data and “start from scratch.”

“Yesterday’s announcement of the results of the NFL helmet testing study is a disturbing step backwards,” Weiner wrote Goodell. “Congress was assured by members of the NFL’s recently created head, neck and spine committee that the old and widely questioned testing methodology would not be relied upon for future recommendations. Yet it appears that that is exactly what happened.”

In telephone interviews Friday night and Saturday morning, Ellenbogen and Batjer said they changed their minds about disseminating the information because the Duke and Penn biomechanics consultants reassured them that the underlying data was correct and held value to NFL players “as long as statements were phrased very carefully,” as Ellenbogen put it.

They were also assisted by Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz of the University of North Carolina, a member of their committee.

Along with other people involved in the process, they added, Dr. Thom Mayer, the union’s medical director, insisted at several junctures that the information be released. Mayer did not return two phone calls seeking comment.

George Atallah, responding by e-mail to a phone message left for the union’s executive director, DeMaurice Smith, wrote: “Every study has limitations and this one on helmets is no different. The parameters of the study were included and made available to players and personnel.”

As for the information being released for public dissemination, the league spokesman Greg Aiello said it would have circulated anyway, adding, “Plus, it is a subject of public interest.”

It is the public’s interest that concerns several experts — and even Batjer, who said that releasing the information as it was on Friday “would not have been my first choice” and said he thought that “all of us have concerns that inappropriate marketing will occur because of this summary.”

It is well known among experts in the field that sales representatives of helmet companies cite helmets’ use by NFL players in marketing and safety claims, particularly in closed-door conversations with youth coaches and athletic directors.

Beyond the limitations it acknowledged, the news release did not mention that Riddell is the league’s official helmet manufacturer, that its top-performing Revolution model was designed with extra earhole padding specifically to perform well on this unique test, and that the testing mechanism recreated forces derived from data on only 25 of 787 concussions sustained by NFL players from 1996 to 2001, many of which came on tackles the league has since ruled illegal.

Xenith, a relatively new helmet manufacturer, pulled out of the NFL testing early this year to protest these issues, particularly as they relate to youth safety.

“This document should not show up in the hands of any parent,” Guskiewicz said. “It doesn’t pertain to them. The three helmets mentioned might be the three lowest-performing helmets at the youth level. We don’t know.”

Asked if he would use the information while choosing helmets for his two sons in youth football, Guskiewicz said he would not.

“They’re not wearing any of those three helmets,” Guskiewicz said.

“I’m not saying they’re unsafe. It’s just that this summary doesn’t apply to their situation.”

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