Thursday, July 21, 2011

Head Injuries, Football Helmets and Government Oversight

Over at ESPN's Page 2 Gregg Easterbrook discusses recent research on helmet safety, based on new research conducted by Stefan Duma, an engineer at Virginia Tech.  Easterbrook writes:
Researchers at Virginia Tech have produced the first brand-by-brand, model-by-model ranking for the likely concussion resistance of helmets. A star-rating system modeled on crash safety rankings for automobiles, the rankings clearly identify the best and worst helmets. Virginia Tech researchers give high marks to these helmets: the Riddell Speed, Riddell Revolution, Riddell Revolution IQ; the Schutt Ion 4D and Schutt DNA; and the Xenith X1. The Virginia Tech researchers give medium grades to the Schutt Air XP and Schutt Air Advantage. The Virginia Tech rankings warn players not to wear these helmets: the Riddell VSR4 and the Adams A2000.

Now the chilling part: the VSR4 -- Virginia Tech's second-lowest-rated helmet -- was the most common helmet in the NFL last season. The VSR4 is widely worn in college and high school, too. Immediately after the Virginia Tech findings were released, Riddell advised football teams to stop using the VSR4, long the company's best seller.
Here is an image from the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest project showing helmets being tested:
The research on which the ratings system has been developed has been recently published in the peer-reviewed literature.  The acknowledged sponsors are the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Institutes of Health (National Institute for Child Health and Human Development). No statement is made about possible conflicts of interest, which is undoubtedly an issue that this community will have to deal with, especially as conflicts develop between industry and academia.

Easterbrook reports that the national organization with responsibility for overseeing standards for athletic equipment -- the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) -- has in recent years been "AWOL" on this topic:
IN THE 1960S, FOOTBALL HELMETS WERE SHODDY, resulting in deaths from skull fractures. NOCSAE (pronounced "noxey") was founded in response, and pressured helmet manufacturers to improve quality. The initiative was a success: Skull fractures in football are now extremely rare. But though NOCSAE would go on to issue standards as precise as nine pages of guidelines on how to stitch football gloves, decades after its founding, the organization has said almost nothing about the relationship between football helmets and concussions.
As we have seen in other contexts, when a problem becomes perceived to be serious and unaddressed via non-governmental efforts, a common result is the governmental-ization of sports governance. The image belowshows in blue the 44 US states that have enacted legislation targeting youth sports-related concussions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The action by state legislatures is a part of this pattern.

To the extent that universities begin to play a larger in the governance process, it will be in their best interests to follow the best practices of other researchers in the medical sciences who find themselves at the confluence of strong public interest and significant corporate money.  This will mean full transparency in acknowledging funding sources (something that the VT-WF study does not do) and following standard conflict of interest guidelines (also something not done).  By doing so, this community can get out in front of many of the controversies that bedevil experts in controversial subjects.


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