Home » Blog » Brooke De Lench » Heads Up: Recent Developments in Sports Safety
Three hot topics are on my mind today: wearable technology, head impact sensors, and football helmets.

Wearable technology

During the past year, I have been invited many times to participate in conversations about wearable technology for athletes. With our headquarters close to the hotbeds of technology centers of MIT and Harvard, I am often asked to sit in on meetings to provide my insight.

What I know is that this is a rapidly-developing field in which we are going to see some amazing technological advances in the next decade.

In particular, I am excited about wafer-thin fabrics applied to the body or equipment to produce circuits interconnected with proprietary techniques and geometries. The result is electronics that are flexible, stretchable and permit true three-dimensional conformable devices. This is truly exciting stuff, although I don't think we will ever see helmets constructed out of these materials. Keep your eye on MC10 Inc.out of Cambridge, Massachusetts for some exciting news.

Helmet sensors

Equally exciting are a couple of new head impact sensors that have already come on to or are about to come on the market.  While none of the sensors will prevent a concussion; they have value as another set of eyes watching out for head injuries, alerting parents or athletic trainer when a hockey, lacrosse or football player may have been hit hard enough to warrant a sideline assessment.

I know that concern has been expressed by some that these devices have not been validated in peer-reviewed studies, and, as readers of MomsTEAM and my blog know, products which claim to actually prevent concussions or risk the severity of concussion symptoms without their claims being backed up by peer-reviewed studies ordinarily don't pass muster with me.

But the problem of underreporting of traumatic brain injury is, in my view, so serious that I feel that the sensors merit consideration, just so long as parents, athletic trainers, and other sideline personnel use them as another tool in the concussion toolbox, do not rely on them as the only means to identify suspected concussion, and don't get lulled into believing that their use will somehow prevent concussion or reduce the severity of traumatic brain injury (which none of the head impact sensor manufacturers claim).

Football Helmet Replacement Program

Finally, on Tuesday, came the exciting news that a group, including the NFL, NFL Players Association, NCAA, NOCSAE (the organization that certifies new helmets), SIGMA, and NAERA (the group, have entered into an unprecedented partnership with football helmet manufacturers Rawlings, Riddell, Schutt, and Xenith to create a youth football safety and helmet replacement program for youth in underserved communities.

The initiative will replace football helmets 10 years old or older (which, as of this fall, will no longer be reconditioned or recertified) and  with new helmets at no cost to the beneficiary leagues, while providing coaches with the latest educational information to help keep their young athletes safer and healthier. 

The NFL, NFL Players Assocation (NFLPA), NCAA and NOCSAE have committed a combined total of approximately $1 million to the program in its first year.  Pilot programs will start in July in four markets: the California Bay Area, Gulf Coast region, Northern Ohio, and the tri-state region around New York City.

The program will be spearheaded by USA Football, the sport's national governing body and the Official Youth Football Development Partner of the NFL and NFLPA,. 

The effort, initiated by Inez Tenenbaum, Chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, is expected to educate thousands of youth football coaches on vital health and safety issues and provide nearly 13,000 new helmets to youth football players in low-income communities in 2012. To learn more or apply for helmets, click here.

In announcing the partnership, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, "We are pleased to be part of this initiative, which will give children in underserved communities access to new helmets, and to reach coaches and parents with educational information to help protect young athletes from head injuries. This program is part of our focus on player safety at all levels of the game. We are proud to join with these well-respected organizations to make the Helmet Replacement Program a reality."

"The time has come to accelerate the culture change needed to improve the health and safety of youth football players," said CPSC Chairman Tenenbaum. "Even with our push for improved safety equipment, it is vital that parents, coaches and players understand that there is no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet. The best answer is safer and smarter play, which is why this game-changing program is aimed at reducing hits to the head and trauma to the brain. I want to thank everyone involved in this initiative for joining together in a common commitment to youth player safety."

MomsTEAM applauds the new partnership.  While helmets do not prevent concussions, replacing helmets that have reached or exceeded their useful life is an important step to keep young football players safe, especially as the replacement program will be combined with a strong educational campaign on concussion awareness, proper helmet fitting, and instruction on proper tackling, and receipt of the new helmets will be conditioned on coaches completing USA Football's basic coaching course.