No sport accounts for more traumatic brain injuries among high school athletes than football. That sobering fact has caused a push for better recognition, and better protection, for high school football players.
The problem is, Colorado physician Dr. Steve Yemm said, there is currently no piece of equipment that can prevent concussions.
That means the concussion rate among high school football players of 76.8 per 100,000 athletic exposures (hockey is a distant second at 54 per 100,000), according to two independent American Journal of Sports Medicine peer-reviewed 2011 studies, will likely remain stagnant for some time.
It also means the trend — identified in another peer-reviewed work published in 2009 — of at least one player sustaining a mild concussion in nearly every American football game is here to stay.
Dr. Yemm has more than 30 years experience as a medical professional, and he has seen those statistics play out firsthand.
Not only is Dr. Yemm a team doctor for Colorado State University and Fort Collins High School’s football teams, but the Orthopaedic Center of the Rockies sports medicine expert has seen his sons suffer concussions throughout their playing careers.
Matt Yemm was a star quarterback for Fort Collins High School who went on to play wide receiver for CSU. Matt graduated in 2011, and he was pushed out of the game he loves after suffering a sixth career concussion during a stint playing in NFL Europe.
Matt has always used the best protection available, but his father said none of that matters.
“People are looking for the holy grail, and that doesn’t exist,” said Dr. Yemm, referencing equipment manufacturers and parents who seek the best equipment to prevent concussions. “There’s no data out there that helmets have changed the incidents of concussions. There’s certainly people still working on new technology.”
The brain, Dr. Yemm said, is really the crux of the whole situation. No research done by any big-brained academic teams has yielded data suggesting better headgear equals fewer concussions.
It’s about the forces at work on the brain, Dr. Yemm said. Rotational acceleration and linear acceleration, scientists have recently found, have to combine to cause a concussion. The effects of a concussion are similar to the effects on the brain of someone who has consumed too much alcohol. It’s a toxic effect, Dr. Yemm said. Concussions aren’t viewable on MRIs or CT scans.
They are essentially invisible. And the ability to prevent them will not come in any visible form, Dr. Yemm said.
“A helmet can’t stop the forces at work inside your head,” Dr. Yemm said. “If there’s some way to stop the brain from bouncing around inside one’s skull ... ”
That would be the holy grail.
Dr. Yemm identified Protect Our Children Ventures’, or POC’s, development of a helmet cover called a Guardian Cap as part of the quest for the holy grail. The cap has been the center of controversy this week in Colorado.
The soft, padded shell that affixes to the outside of a football helmet is said to reduce impact forces by 33 percent, according to POC’s own testing.
The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment doesn’t buy POC’s results, recently releasing the following statement:
“NOCSAE helmet standards are specific to models which are identical in all aspects, except as to size. The testing required to support the certification is also specific to the model being certified. NOCSAE standards require that any change in configuration, padding, shell geometry, or protective system requires a new model designation with separate certification testing. The addition of after-market items by anyone that changes or alters the protective system by adding or deleting protective padding to the inside or outside of the helmet, or which changes or alters the geometry of the shell or adds mass to the helmet, whether temporary or permanent, voids the certification of compliance with the NOCSAE standard.”
That statement prompted the Colorado High School Activities Association to release its own statement banning the protective headgear during CHSAA-sanctioned games this fall.
Despite the CHSAA ruling, parents weren’t swayed to remove the Guardian Caps from their kids’ helmets during practice.
CHSAA does not regulate practices said Bert Borgmann, CHSAA assistant commissioner. Any regulations involving equipment during practice would have to come from a given school district.
Danielle Clark, Poudre School District communications director, said the district supports the CHSAA decision and will go about directing schools to ban the use of Guardian Caps in practices.
“We haven’t sent out anything to schools yet,” Clark said. “My guess is we’ll communicate that to the athletic directors.”
Fossil Ridge High School’s football team, one of about a dozen in Colorado that uses the Guardian Cap, saw 15-20 kids purchase the Guardian Caps a year ago. At $55 each, coach Steve Vecchio estimates the team, which went half-in with parents, doled out about $1,000.
Just one player, sophomore running back Chase Jolly, was wearing the cap at practice Thursday.
“My parents wanted me to have it for extra head protection so I don’t get a concussion,” Jolly said.
Jolly’s dad, Andy, said Vecchio and other coaches passed around a flier about the product last year.
“Any extra protection is a good thing,” said Andy, who cited a statistic found on the flier suggesting 90 percent of concussions happen in practice. He was unaware of PSD’s decision, which was communicated to The Coloradoan at about noon Friday.
Most players and coaches who spoke to The Coloradoan were under the impression that the majority of head trauma injuries happen at practice. Before they were made aware Guardian Caps were banned from all football-related activities, parents and coaches were OK with the CHSAA ruling, because their kids would still be protected during the most dangerous parts of football.
That’s simply not true.
Two-thirds of high school sports concussions happen during competition, according to a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
If the Guardian Cap is the holy grail, at least for parents, its effectiveness has been stagnated by the CHSAA ruling that bans its use during games. And that’s when the vast majority of high school football players are most likely to suffer a concussion. Now that PSD has weighed in on the Guardian Caps, the holy grail has turned into a hole for parents’ money.
Who's calling the shots
Borgmann said NOCSAE hasn’t tested or certified Guardian Caps. He said that means, by rule, they cannot be used in high school football games.
There’s only one problem: NOCSAE doesn’t actually test or certify anything. The organization sets parameters for testing. But that testing is done by manufacturers. Riddell certifies Riddell equipment. Schutt certifies Schutt and so on. Right now, POC can’t certify Guardian Caps.
Currently, it’s a back-scratching setup with no governmental oversight. Riddell must make a sample of each helmet model available for inspection by a third-party laboratory. There is one at the University of Tennessee and two others by the names of Intertek and ICS. There’s another, too, the Bureau Veritas in China.
These labs are accredited by another private nonprofit called The American Association for Laboratory Accreditation. All of these nonprofits share some board members or, at the very least, have industry leaders as part of the board makeup. There is no government oversight to the testing or procedures used for equipment intended for use by the nation’s sporting youths.
Mike Oliver, executive director and general counsel for NOCSAE, said the organization’s statement tentatively applies to Guardian Caps. But NOCSAE has been in communication with POC since the statement was released, as the cap-making company seeks an exemption to the statement. That could happen soon if POC follows some basic guidelines.
“Theoretically, Guardian could go out and buy 5,000 Riddell helmets brand new, then subject them to all the same testing through an accredited laboratory,” Oliver said in a phone interview. “Guardian then certifies these helmets, and I would issue them a license agreement.”
Another, perhaps less cost-prohibitive way for POC to obtain certification, is to conduct its own NOCSAE-standard testing. Companies like Riddell and Schutt already do this.
POC said via email it’s not that simple.
“The Guardian Cap has been independently tested at the same labs used by helmet manufacturers and the results meet or exceed all NOCSAE standards,” a portion of the POC statement reads. “Each request to NOCSAE to have the Guardian Cap evaluated or to establish a standard for helmet add-ons has been turned down or ignored.”
Indeed, NOCSAE’s job, according to Oliver and the organization’s website, is to develop testing standards. Yet Oliver said NOCSAE simply doesn’t have a standard for third-party add-ons. Although the organization has the power to create standards, Oliver said without a standard, NOCSAE’s hands are tied.
It’s a cycle that leaves the small company POC, which sold just 8,000 Guardian Caps a year ago, fighting a losing battle.
“It is the goal of POC Ventures to ensure that coaches, athletic trainers and parents who have witnessed first-hand the positive results of using the Guardian Cap with their current NOCSAE certified helmets have the ability to choose the equipment that they believe best serves their athletes,” the POC’s statement concluded.
The CHSAA statement reads like a warning letter from an attorney. The organization seeks to distance itself from any liability that could be associated with helmets falling out of certification due to third-party add-on equipment like the Guardian Cap.
Is the safety of kids considered?
“We hope it’s both (safety of kids and protection from liability),” Borgmann said.
Resurrection Christian High School football coach and athletic director Mark Roggy said he wouldn’t allow his players to wear the caps strictly from a liability standpoint.
Vecchio, meanwhile, encouraged parents to purchase the caps. An old-school football guy, Vecchio said, “Eventually, we’re just going to put a giant bubble on each kid’s head.”
Despite that mentality, Vecchio has said he thinks the Guardian Caps work and are a good idea.
After reviewing the NOCSAE data himself, Vecchio changed his opinion on Guarding Caps, saying he would not recommend his players wearing the caps to fall camp.
Riddell didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Clark said she doesn’t know if PSD has been given any data to suggest the Guardian Caps increase the risk of concussions. When asked if the district was concerned more about liability than student-athlete safety, Clark was adamant the safety of students has always been PSD’s top priority.
Safety is also a top priority for parents, including Fossil Ridge sophomore Fisher Layden’s mom, Jill.
“When it comes to any protective gear, we’re always for it,” said Jill, whose son wore the Guardian Cap last year and had plans to wear it this year in practice. “It was a no-brainer for me.”