Are football helmets as protective as they look?

by Crane-Station

During one week at the beginning of the 2014 football season, three high school players, Tom Cutinella, age 16 (NY), Demario Harris, age 17 (Ala), and Isaiah Langston, age 17 (NC), died of head injuries sustained while playing football. In an article titled, The Underpublicized High School Football Deaths, Forbes writes, ” The game is bigger in our collective conscience than the death of 3 kids in a week playing that very game. Why is that?”

Football fans love to watch “big hits.” In fact, there is a YouTube clip titled, Here comes the boom- Biggest NFL & NCAA HITS – HD – 2014, and another one featuring similar hits for Junior League football. The chants and songs that we have come to love: “Another One Bites the Dust,” and even the ads reflect an American culture that loves this contact sport.

More than any other sport in the United States, American football “has the most concussions, with over 250,000 injuries reported annually in football players, with 20% of high-school football players experiencing a concussion every year.” The Sports Concussion Institute reports more numbers:

-Impact speed of a football player tackling a stationary player: 25mph

-A professional football player will receive an estimated 900 to 1500 blows to the head during a season

-Football is the most common sport with concussion risk for males (75% chance for concussion)

To see how effective football helmets are in preventing concussions, researchers conducted a study, performing 330 tests on crash test dummies, and the results of the study were presented earlier this year at the American Academy of Neurology’s (AAN) 66th Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. The study found that helmets overall are only twenty percent better than no protection at all, in preventing concussions in football players. In a press release titled, “How Well Do Football Helmets Protect Players from Concussions?,” the AAN writes:

The study found that football helmets on average reduced the risk of traumatic brain injury by only 20 percent compared to not wearing a helmet. Of the 10 helmet brands tested, the Adams a2000 provided the best protection against concussion and the Schutt Air Advantage the worst. Overall, the Riddell 360 provided the most protection against closed head injury and the Adams a2000 the least, despite rating the best against concussion.

“Alarmingly, those that offered the least protection are among the most popular on the field,” said Conidi. “Biomechanics researchers have long understood that rotational forces, not linear forces, are responsible for serious brain damage including concussion, brain injury complications and brain bleeds. Yet generations of football and other sports participants have been under the assumption that their brains are protected by their investment in headwear protection.”

After that spring meeting, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) that mandates safety standards for all helmets worn by young and old held a meeting in the summer to address concussion testing in helmets. Until this year, the (self-governing) regulatory agency has only addressed the issue of helmets preventing fractures. A helmet provides a seventy percent reduction in skull fracture likelihood. However, concussions are a separate issue.

The Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences conducts independent testing on football helmets, giving them star ratings. Indeed, not all helmets are equal. For example, the Adams A2000 Pro Elite helmet, which costs $199.95 is not recommended at all, whereas the Schutt AiR XP Pro VDT, which retails for the same price, is rated among the best currently available, for injury prevention.

Casualties of the Gridiron

Sports discussion on concussions in the NFL

How football helmets are made
How Well Do Football Helmets Protect Against Concussion and Brain Injury?

8 Responses to Are football helmets as protective as they look?

  1. lyn says:

    Tragic Fred.

  2. racerrodig says:

    A good dose of common sense get one fairly far in life.

  3. racerrodig says:

    We’ll probably never know the true extent of what is really going on with sports related brain injuries in our lifetime. I played 4 years of HS football and took some serious hits but thankfully never a direct hit to the helmet and part of the reason was self preservation. As receivers we were coached to get what yardage you can and go down before you get smoked. We were taught how to tackle and get tackled, how to block and take a block without risking anything serious.

    Then I played 9 years of semi-pro football and some of those guys, well, all the lineman and linebackers, were NFL size, and we were coached how to take a hit, keep your head up, and on a swivel.

    When I was a junior in HS, one of our linebackers made a helmet to helmet tackle on a running back in the open field that was around 6-3 240 and our guy was 6-0 and 220……the sound was scary to say the least. Our guys helmet was split from front to back right down the middle. The webbing inside was all that was holding it together. He did save the game with the tackle stopping the RB 6 inches short of a 1st down, but that’s a story for another time.

    The point is, how did those 2 survive ? Do they have any issues since then, did we, as a group back then just shake that stuff off as just part of the game? We were coached how to play hard, win within the rules but never attempt to inflict injury, never a blow to the head, never try to takes someone out at the knees intentionally.

    The speed of the game today is incredible and the hits, I can’t imagine the force in PSI or what is used to measure these hits.

    Hell, in HS I used the single face bar mask like my hero Fred Biletnikoff used. like this…..

    Notice how small the padded area was back then. Today even the worst helmets are 1000% better. As far as I’m concerned there needs to be far more research into sports safety and enforcement of rules that are there to prevent injury.

    The year after I graduated, under a new head coach, one RB was crippled for life by putting his head down and trying to take the tackler head on in the open field. The other kid had no idea what happened but the kid from my Alma mater went down and hasn’t even been able to feed himself since 1973. I was at the game and it was claimed his helmet was so badly fitted he stood no chance of surviving any real blow to the head.

    I love the game and played for 13 years in full gear….nothing but bumps, bruises…..and a slight tear to the meniscus in my left knee….
    ………..just lucky I guess.

    • I just read your comment out loud to Crane, who is in the other room, and we’re both speechless. You eloquently said it all.

      Thanks from both of us.

    • MDX says:

      Man, that is one of the finest posts I have read on any website.

      The problem with CTE is that it is the result of what engineers call the jerk vector – the derivative of acceleration. Think of a force spike wherein the height of the spike is a function of the amount of energy under the curve with the start and end points measured in microseconds.

      So how is the energy created?


      one half times mass {weight of athlete} times velocity {running speed at impact} to the second power.

      So athletes getting bigger, faster and stronger create exponentially more energy.

      So, although the helmet can protect bone and tissue, it can do little to prevent to brain slosh of a jerk vector.

      In fact, having a lot of body armor can make the athlete more confident to impact faster because they are protected better from cuts, bruises and broken bones. But the brain, which is soft tissue inside a hard shell, still has to decelerate in a few microseconds, so it slaps and twists against a hard surface.

      Football is similar to boxing wherein those hard tackles are blows to the head that are not KOs and getting your “bell rung” is a KO.

      Over 20 years of HS, College, and Pro that is going to take a toll.

      Another factor is how momentum portions energy transfer.

      If two equal masses hit there will be a 50:50 energy split.

      If one mass is half the other, the law of conservation of momentum mandates that the smaller mass decelerate at twice the rate of the larger, thus being subject to four times the energy.

      An example is a pool ball rolling into a marble. The pool ball barely gets deflected and the marble goes flying off at a high rate of speed. Imagine the brain inside the hard protective shell of either the pool ball or marble.

      Note that the NFL started to have rules to protect a QB due to the injuries that tended to be one sided against the QB resulting from being hit by heavier defensive lineman.

      • racerrodig says:

        It’s a shame that there are no records of what head injuries happened 50 – 60 – 70 – 80 years ago in the leather helmet days when football players were nowhere near as fast.

        I have dozens of football history books with pictures of every historical moment / player / play from the 19-teens forward.

        They had bloodied noses by the bushel but nowhere is there mention of concussions and brain trauma. Was it being hidden even back then, or were players more conscious of getting hurt, or is the batter equipment of today a false security blanket ?

        Your physics explanation is the same as “nobody ever died from jumping off of a building…… was the sudden deceleration trauma”

        If you watch much football of any kind, you’ve seen that huge hit where a runner or a QB stops or is standing and gets unloaded on. The standee takes all the impact…….and that sucks…..besides being dangerous. Same thing with a car impact.

        That’s why there are so many protect the franchise QB rules now………….I say sack his ass, but that’s just me.

        • MDX says:

          A good comparison to the old days of football would be Australian Rules Football or Pro Rugby.

          You sound like my cousin who was a defensive end in HS. He hates and wants every QB sacked :).

          One could put a human in a protective shell with rubber to brace them inside and drop the shell off of a building and the human would die due to sudden deceleration trauma. In fact, that is the limiting factor in automobile airbag systems. Yes, the body shell and airbags will keep the system sound when struck by a semi, but due to a 20:1 mass ratio 99% of the impulse will be in the reference frame of the car.

          So those commercials where the manufacturer touts a 5 star rating for a wee compact are misleading. The test is done by striking a test sled that is an average weight of a vehicle. Or they ram the car into a fixed mass.

          Airbag systems will save a life up to about hitting a brick wall at 50 mph.

          An object in free fall reaches around 130 mph before terminal velocity limit kicks in.

          • racerrodig says:

            “A good comparison to the old days of football would be Australian Rules Football or Pro Rugby.’

            Those guys are NUTZZZZZ !

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