Day 6

NFL's safest helmet ever may not be enough to stop concussions

The new NFL season kicks off in earnest this weekend and some players will be wearing the safest helmet the league has ever approved. But a concussion specialist says even that might not prevent players from sustaining head injuries.
Houston Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney levels New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady after Brady released a pass during the first half of an NFL divisional playoff football game. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press)

Concussions remain a major issue for high-impact sports, with the National Football League perhaps the most high-profile group attempting to address player safety.

A new study in July of this year showed that 110 of 111 brains of former NFL players showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease found in people who have suffered repeated blows to the head.

As the new NFL season kicks off this week, the league may be on the verge of a shift towards better protecting its athletes thanks to a new helmet that is designed to absorb the impact of a collision.

A helmet, similar to what players currently use, is displayed at the NFL Headquarters in New York. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

25 NFL teams have purchased the new Zero1 helmet from Seattle-based startup Vicis and distributed them at practices this past spring.

The innovative helmet, which is slightly bigger and softer than standard football helmets, features a pliable outer layer and an impact-absorbing core layer that cushions the wearer's head against hard impact from any direction.

In testing against 33 other helmets to measure which best reduced the severity of impact on the head, the Vicis Zero1 finished first. The study included helmets from Schutt and Riddell, which currently account for around 90 per cent of helmet sales.

Vicis, founded by neurosurgeon Sam Browd and Dave Marver, the former CEO of Cardiac Science, aims to reduce the high rate of concussions in football.

The company has attracted several current and former NFL players and coaches, including Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin and QB coach Carl Smith, to its coalition of supporters.

But even something like this new helmet simply may not be enough to fully prevent concussion in a game like football, Dr. Bob Cantu, co-founder of the CTE Centre at Boston University and an advisor to the NFL, tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

The new Vicis Zero1 helmet is designed to absorb the impact of a collision. (Courtesy Vicis)


Testing the technology

"There's no question that it has tested out well and there's no question that innovative technology is in it. And I certainly commend those that are responsible for that," Dr. Cantu says. 

"But after all is said and done, what's going to have to happen is that you're going to have to see a reduction of recognized concussions in that helmet compared to other helmets that are being used by athletes."

While Dr. Cantu is cautious as to whether the Zero1 is the solution to the NFL's problem with brain injuries, he acknowledges the technology is a big step forward.

[The helmet's safety] is something that has to be proven out by on-the-field experience.- Dr. Bob Cantu

"One thing that makes it different is $20 million in research and development that went into it. These are their figures and I assume they're correct," he notes.

"And it is quite different in several different ways. One is a softer outer shell —breaking the rather longstanding tradition of hard polycarbonate outer shell — and then softer inner liners, and it uses different energy-attenuating technology. And it also has a slightly wider view for the athletes themselves."

The Zero1 scored higher than other helmets on the NFL's safety tests that use a linear impactor, which is "like a piston that hits the helmet," Dr. Cantu explains.

The test may not entirely replicate what actually happens on the athletic field, but "it's monitoring the big hits and it's seeing which helmets best attenuate them and it's making the assumption that if you attenuate the big hits, you're probably going to do well with lesser hits as well," Dr. Cantu adds. "And generally speaking, that's a logical assumption, but it's something that has to be proven out by on-the-field experience."


A football helmet's health warning sticker is pictured between a U.S. flag and the number 55, in memory of former student and NFL player Junior Seau. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Cutting down on collisions

The new helmet may have tested well, but when it comes down to it, Dr. Cantu says helmets are only one factor involved in the potential for a player getting concussed.

"The problem that we have with helmets trying to prevent concussions is that concussions occur because the brain is violently shaken inside the skull, and that shaking happens in football mostly from head collisions where heads are affixed to rigid necks that are afifxed to big bodies that weigh a lot.

"And when two heads collide — no matter how good the helmet is — the heads are going to be violently shaken. And so that is the problem with helmets trying to prevent concussions. They've done a wonderful job stopping skull fractures, and a wonderful job reducing inter-cranial bleeding, but they have not been able to solve the concussion problem as yet."

When two heads collide, no matter how good the helmet, the heads are going to be violently shaken.- Dr. Bob Cantu

While the league has been criticized for its approach in the past to CTE — among other accounts, the recent film Concussion, based on the book by Bennet Omalu, depicted how the forensic neuropathologist was stonewalled by the NFL as he tried to sound the alarm about the effects of repeated head trauma on players — in recent years it has been investing in its commitment to addressing the problem.

"I think it's definitely a positive thing that they're trying to protect the athletes. I think there are other ways they could protect the athletes as well, with rules changes," Dr. Cantu says.

"I think if you're going to make the next really big change, you have to eliminate the head as a targeted area to be hit. It's going to get hit accidentally, but that's different than running 20 yards to drill somebody in the head," he notes.

"But in terms of trying to make their helmets better, I certainly support that."



For the full interview with Dr. Bob Cantu, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.