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NOCSAE Meeting: Lots Of Questions, But No Answers

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Last Friday, I attended the summer meeting of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) at the Boston Harbor Hotel. It was hard to be inside on such a spectacular summer day, but made easier by the location of the meeting: in the Atlantic Room, directly above Rowe's Wharf, with a view of a sparkling Boston harbor filled with sailboats and power boats. Boston harbor skyline with Rowes Warf

Notice that I said easier, not easy, because, as I sat at the back of the room I kept wondering to myself why I traded such a gorgeous day for a chance to listen to presentations by members of an organization that, frankly, has little credibility with me, and, I suspect, with others.

The event, if it can be called that, had been circled on my calendar for months. The room was packed with media, and at least one youth athlete safety advocate (me). We were there to hear the NOCSAE Board of Directors finally approve a football helmet performance standard designed to reduce concussion risk (which, to its credit, it did).

I was also there to learn what, if any, amendments NOCSAE was prepared to make to its policy on helmet add-ons and third-party certification, which caused such an uproar when it was announced, and then almost immediatly clarified, last summer. (It decided to change from a process of self-certification - the same one used by the Consumer Product Safety Commission for youth bicycle standards - to requiring third-party certification, beginning in January 2015, in accordance with ANSI/ISO international guidelines, in particular, ISO:17065)

But, most of all, I was at the NOCSAE meeting to find out if it was making any progress towards adoption of a youth football helmet standard, which was first proposed three years ago in April 2011, and updated in January 2012 from proposed to draft . Here's what I found today on the NOCSAE website about that change: http://nocsae.org/media-newsroom/2012/09/youth-football-helmut-moved-fro...).

After deliberation and consideration of input from multiple interested parties, the board voted in January 2012 to change the Youth Football Helmet Standard from "Proposed" to "Draft" so that more input can be received, and to permit development of that standard to follow a separate track. There was also concern that some may misinterpret the "proposed" status to indicate that NOCSAE has reached a tentative final decision with regard to the content and parameters of that standard, which is not the case. Significant hurdles remain to the development of a youth football helmet standard that will address the specific injury risks and biomechanical forces involved in youth football, and that data has not yet been well developed. Recently published studies such as Daniel RW, Rowson S, Duma SM. Head Impact Exposure in Youth Football. Annals of Biomedical Engineering. 2012:1-6 is an example of the data being developed. And other programs focused specifically on injury epidemiology in youth football, some directly funded by NOCSAE research grants, are still in the data collection and analysis stage, and will provide additional science necessary to support an effective and reliable performance standard for youth football helmets. A Draft version of the standard is available here ND006-11m11.

Interestingly, the link to the "draft version of the standards" now takes you to a "Page Not Found." But if you want to download the .pdf of the "Standard Performance Specification for Newly manufactured Youth Football Helmets" the link can be found (for now) here: http://nocsae.org/wp-content/files_mf/1351111531ND00611m11MfrdYouthFBHel.... [If this link goes dead, please let me know, and I will send you a pdf.]

NOCSAE June 2014 meeting in Boston, MA

I was hoping that longtime NOCSAE board member, Dr. Robert Cantu, MomsTEAM's original concussion expert and co-founder of the Sports-Legacy Institute, would at least address the urgent need to move the youth helmet standard towards adoption before acting on any other standards, but no such luck.

One line in particular stands out in the youth helmet standard proposed in 2011:

7.4 The mass of the helmet including all accessories, attachments and facemask shall not exceed 2.866lbs (1.3kg).

From my work with football parents in teaching them about the Six Pillar approach MomsTEAM has developed to concussion risk management, and from spending time observing the measuring, purchasing, fitting, and testing of hundreds of helmets on youth football players, my anecdotal experience is that kids prefer lighter helmets. The laws of physics (KE=0.5mv2) seem to suggest that lighter helmets, because they have less mass, create less kinetic energy.

Given the fact that kids under age 14, as Bob Cantu has repeatedly pointed out, have disproportionately large heads and disproportionately weaker neck muscles (which create what some call the "bobble-head" effect: a violent snapping back of the head when force is applied), it would stand to reason that a lighter helmet would protect younger kids better against the rotational forces that more and more experts, including Bob, believe cause the most serious concussions.

I also have to believe that, with a lighter helmet on their heads, kids would be less tempted to lower their head to use the helmet as a weapon (something that the kids who I interviewed for "The Smartest Team" documentary admitted they did).

Are there youth helmets that meet the 2.86 pound limitation? The only one of which I am aware is the SG helmet. All the rest weigh more than 2.86 lbs. I talked to representatives from Schutt, Riddell and Xenith last week about the weight of their youth helmets, but I had to really prod them to answer my questions.  They conceded that they all weigh over 3.8 pounds; most are closer to 4 lbs.

Keep in mind that for an 80-pound child a 4 pound helmet represents 5% of their body weight. Given the weakness of their necks and the size of their heads in relation to their bodies, I am left to wonder how many times a youth football player lowers his head because the helmet is just too heavy to hold his head up during a game, especially when they get tired.  How many helmet-to-helmet collisions, and helmet-to-ground collisions result? How many could be avoided were the helmets lighter?

I am not alone, of course, in thinking that there needs to be a youth specific helmet standard. I know that Stefan Duma and Steve Rowson and their colleagues at Virginia Tech-Wake Forest are collecting data on head impact exposure at the youth level, and hope to issue STAR ratings next year on youth helmets in 2015. Indeed, it was their 2012 study that NOCSAE cited in its discussion of youth football helmet standards.

But I left to wonder whether we are moving fast enough. As Dave Halstead, a biomechanics specialist at the University of Tennessee and the Southern Impact Research Center testing laboratory who advises NOCSAE, noted at the meeting, "Our concussion problem has not gotten better."

Unfortunately, the meeting was abruptly adjourned shortly after the lunch break without the media and others, including me, having a chance to ask any questions. I was not surprised that they didn't want me asking questions. They knew I was in the room and that I have been a NOCSAE critic in the past, especially critical of their third party certification ruling last summer.

If I had had a chance to ask questions, here's what I would have asked:

  1. NOCSAE voted in January 2012 to change the youth football helmet standard from proposed to draft, but two years later, hasn't acted. Why not? (I suspect the answer is that it is waiting for more data, of which there is very little so far).
  2. When can the youth football community expect a final standard to be approved and implemented?  (I suspect that the answer is, don't hold your breath)
  3. Isn't it long past the time to set a standard that requires youth football helmets to be lighter than helmets for players at the high school, college and pro levels (the draft standard requires the helmets to be no more than 2.866 pounds). (A rhetorical question, to be sure).
  4. What about the face mask? It contributes about 1.5 lbs of weight. Can anything be done to make it lighter?
  5. Is the delay because there are currently no youth football helmets on the market that meet that weight limitation with the exception of the SG helmet? (NOCSAE has often been criticized for at least the appearance of protecting the interests of helmet manufacturers; as a newcomer to the football helmet field (albeit with years of experience in manufacturing helmets for race car drivers, SG isn't part of the group with a vested interest in not adopting a standard that would force them to design lighter youth helmets)
  6. Why does NOCSAE insist on using "drop tests" and "impact attenuation tests" that were developed for car crashes in the 1960s instead of using full form crash dummies?

As for the adult and youth football helmet standards and the third-party certification issue, stay tuned; there is much more coming on this later this summer, including announcements by two new groups who are working with full size adult and youth dummies to provide data, and who may just prove that there is no way to meet the revised " Standard Performance Specification For Newly Manufactured Football Helmets" that was opened for a year of comment last Friday.

Here are links to the previous articles on the NOCSAE 2013 statement and clarification on third-party add-ons:

NOCSAE Ruling On Helmet Sensors Generates Controversy 

NOCSAE Clarifies Stance On Voiding Of Helmet Certification With Add-Ons 

Brooke de Lench is the Executive Director and Founder of the non-profit MomsTEAM Institute, Founder and Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, and Producer/Director of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer," which will be airing again on stations across the country in the fall of 2014, and author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers In Youth Sports (HarperCollins).