The Pro Football Concussion Report

A Fan's Look at Head Injuries and the Concussion Crisis in Football

Helmet Wars: Riddell vs. All-Comers

football helmet warning
Tobacco-like warning we may someday see on football helmets


(Updated Friday, 3/22/13) The introduction of new football helmet  technology from anybody other than Riddell has faced unexpected hurdles from the NFL’s “research” committees, scientific impact-testing companies, and even a not-for-proft safety certification organization according to several articles. In a Bloomberg News story, writer John Helyar tells the frustrating story of ProCap, a helmet accessory that enjoyed some success in the NFL during the 1990’s before being shot down by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s notorious MTBI committee.  And in an older piece for ESPN, author Gregg Easterbrook discusses the structure of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), the organization that sets the NFL’s standard for helmet safety certification. 

(3/22/13 update: It is important to note that Michael Oliver, Executive Director and General Counsel of NOCSAE has characterized much of the information regarding NOCSAE in Easterbrook’s article and subsequently in this post as incomplete and misleading. Oliver offers that information readily available on the NOCSAE website gives a more extensive and accurate idea of their commitment to concussions as they relate to helmets. Furthermore, Oliver states that “for the last 10 years, NOCSAE has been the largest source of research grant funding for independent concussion specific research, outside the federal government.”)

In 1994, San Francisco 49ers lineman Steve Wallace, an All-Pro and the first offensive lineman to fetch a $10 million contract, suffered three concussions in the first half of the season. Wallace concluded his Riddell helmet wasn’t giving him enough protection and began wearing a ProCap. He incurred no more concussions, won his third Super Bowl ring and  became a believer. In 1997, in his final season for the Kansas City Chiefs, Wallace recalls getting a message forbidding him from wearing the ProCap.  The Chiefs team physician was Dr. Joseph Waeckerle, an emergency medicine doctor and also a member of the now defunct NFL MBTI committee.  16 years later, Wallace is still fuming about the equipment edict.  ProCap’s demise “wasn’t about the players’ safety, it was about the dollar bills,” Wallace says.

For years, the inventor of the ProCap, Bert Straus experienced some of the development and approval steps that any product manufacturer, particularly one with such serious safety implications, would have to go through. Unfortunately, much of ProCap’s resistance would eminate from the NFL’s controversial and now defunct MTBI committee and it’s co-chairman, Dr. Elliot Pellman. The MTBI committee and Paul Tagliabue’s unexplained selection of Dr. Pellman in particular, plays an important role in the plaintiffs allegations against the NFL in each of the concussion lawsuits. Since then, Dr. Pellman, a rheumatologist, resigned his position as head of the NFL’s concussion research, and the MTBI was later canned by the NFL and replaced with the current Head, Neck and Spine Committee.  On his website, Dr. Pellman currently lists himself as the NFL’s Medical Director and continues to report directly to Commissioner Goodell.

NOCSAE got its start in 1969 after a rash of organized football related deaths on 1968. Although originally covering the safety of athletic equipment for many sports, budget and time issues have more recently forced NOCSAE to focus more on football, lacrosse and baseball.

One of the legal issues with safety and standards testing organizations like the government’s FDA or the independent NOCSAE is that product manufacturers could attempt to reduce their their liability by shifting some of the safety responsibility to the independent testing and approval process. Basically, “if the FDA said it’s okay, then it’s okay.”  One concern is that attorneys for Riddell and other helmet manufacturers or possibly even the NFL could point to NOCSAE’s certification to reduce their potential liability.  An obvious weakness with that argument though is that NOCSAE certification is voluntary and the organization is not a government regulatory agency.  Currently, the NFL does not offer much information or guidance regarding helmets, but according to NOCSAE director Oliver, the NFL, NCAA, NFHS, the U.S. Military (through the DOD), USA Football and Pop Warner all require that helmets used in their leagues be certified by NOCSAE. So, even though certification is voluntary, because of NOCSAE’s wide acceptance throughout most leagues, it would be virtually impossible for a helmet manufacturer to survive without certification.

Regardless, NOCSAE makes limited claims regarding concussions.  In an email, Oliver responds:

The NOCSAE football helmet standard is not a concussion standard, and it has never been promoted as such.  There is no concussion specific helmet standard anywhere in the world, regardless of the sport or activity.”

According to writer Gregg Easterbrook, at a 2011 seminar, Michael Oliver declared, “All our income is from sports equipment manufacturers, as licensing fees for putting the NOCSAE logo on their equipment.” Easterbrook says this represents a serious conflict of interest. “If the organization called any helmet unsafe, the manufacturer could no longer use the NOCSAE seal, and might stop paying NOCSAE the licensing fee. This would seem to give NOCSAE a financial incentive to reach no conclusion about helmets and concussion safety.”

Oliver calls Easterbrook’s conclusion inaccurate. Oliver writes, “NOCSAE has no authority or standing to declare a helmet “unsafe”.  If we find evidence that a football helmet has been inaccurately certified, and in fact does not meet the standard, we would not hesitate to make that fact known.”

In his article, Easterbrook continues about why Oliver said his organization is silent on helmets and concussions. “NOCSAE’s founding mission statement calls for reform “where feasible,” Oliver said, and concussion reform may not be feasible. Until there may be “scientific certainty” about the exact causes of football concussions, it would be “unethical” for NOCSAE to offer guidance.”

After reading more of the content on NOCSAE’s website, it’s clear that they’re actually not “silent” about the concussion issue. As a matter of fact, concussion issues are addressed prominently and throughout their website. But perhaps Easterbrook, as well as many parents and football fans, is frustrated by the lack of conclusions in regard to sport concussions despite the millions of dollars poured into research by the NFL and organizations like NOCSAE.


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