There is a well-known adage, “Football is a game of inches.” No better reminder can be made than the loss by the Tennessee Titans to the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV. In recent years, however, attention has turned from the game of inches on the field to the importance of the inch and a half between a player’s skull and a player’s helmet. With large investments funding research and product development, the NFL and other organizations are advancing helmet technology to provide safer equipment for players at the professional level, as well as kids and young adults at the amateur level. NFL executives, team owners, players, scientists, doctors and engineers are now gathering with regularity to discuss, update, plan and voice opinions regarding the continued research into concussions and their effects on the health and safety of former, current and future players of the game.
History of Helmet Evolution
The first “helmets” used by football players during the early 1900s were padded headgear that included soft padded foam covered by leather. The protection mainly focused on ear guards connected to an open dome on top of the players head. The 1930s introduced hard leather helmets with inner padding. Starting in 1943, the NFL required all players to wear head protection. The first plastic helmets were made by John Riddell in the 1940s, however his company almost went bankrupt due to a design flaw which caused the helmet to crack under straight-on impacts. In the 1970s, the first helmet to have air filled pockets was produced by Schutt. Since the ’70s and ’80s, the helmet has made incremental advances, ultimately leading to the helmets used today. Most current helmets use a rigid polycarbonate shell with padding made of various materials on the inside. With the growing concerns over concussions and player safety, the traditional helmet may become a relic of the past.
One of the newest companies to enter the helmet market is VICIS Inc. A small company based in Seattle, Washington, VICIS is set to release their new helmet for the 2017-2018 season. The helmet, named Zero1, has been developed over the past four years and was recently awarded the top-ranking helmet in the 2017 annual helmet test as released by the NFL and NFLPA. VICIS Inc. is seeking patent protection on various pieces of their new design, especially those materials that absorb impact.
The Zero1’s innovation comes from inverting more traditional helmet technology by putting a softer, more flexible material on the outside with a rigid layer inside the helmet. The helmet is composed of four distinct layers, the soft outer shell, the column-like layer, the rigid inner shell, and the foam liner that contacts the players head. The harmony of these four layers working together have provided results that give the helmet its top-rank position.
One of the biggest innovations includes the soft outer shell which deforms on impact. One might think of this in the same way that current car bumpers work, where the impact depresses the outer material which then returns to its shape after impact. This outer shell is the first layer of defense in absorbing and diffusing the energy of an impact.
The second layer, the column-like structure, is another of the major innovations used in the design of the helmet and is the subject of multiple U.S. patent applications. The impact absorbing structures change resistance based on the force being applied. The structure has sufficient strength and rigidity to resist deformation from mild impact forces, but when impacted with sufficient force, the structures deform in an omnidirectional pattern dependent on the direction of the force applied. This reduces energy transmitted from the outer shell to the inner shell and thus has the capacity to reduce impact trauma to the player’s head. In addition, the column-like structure allows for independent movement of the outer shell relative to the inner shell in a variety of directions. This reduces rotational acceleration, which has been determined to be a major component in causing concussions.
Whether this new helmet will reduce concussion impacts is still to be determined. VICIS sent helmets to all 32 NFL teams during 2017 training camps to get feedback and “real-world” data to help improve the helmet before the regular season.
The NFL and other organizations have spent millions collecting data and funding concussion research and concussion-preventing technology. Companies like VICIS continue to advance technology around helmet design and safety to produce the best product they can. Some, however, argue that the biggest change the NFL could and should make has nothing to do with equipment. Since 2002, the NFL has made 47 rule changes in an effort to reduce the number of concussions and head impacts that occur during a game, but the question is, just how much more protection can a helmet provide? VICIS appears to think the answer is more, a lot more. Mark Kilgore, Ph.D.