On August 19, 2012, in week two of the NFL preseason, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Austin Collie ran 17 yards out from the line of scrimmage, cut right toward the center of the field, caught a pass, and was immediately tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. As Taylor came in for the hit, his helmet appeared to glance off the left side of Collie’s helmet. Then the cornerback wrapped his arm around Collie’s neck and jerked the receiver’s head to the right. An instant later, Steelers linebacker Larry Foote came barreling in from the opposite side and slammed his elbow into the right side of Collie’s helmet. As the receiver fell to the ground, his helmet first hit Foote’s knee and then struck the ground face-first.
Collie sat up, dazed, and had to be helped off the field a minute later. He didn’t return to play for three weeks. The diagnosis: concussion. It wasn’t the first time Collie had suffered what’s clinically called a traumatic brain injury. On November 7, 2010, he spent nearly 10 minutes lying motionless on the 34-yard line after being hit in the head almost simultaneously by two Philadelphia Eagles players. Medics carried him off the field on a stretcher. In his first game back, two weeks later, he left in the first quarter with another concussion. He missed three more games, only to suffer yet another concussion on December 19, which ended his season.
Professional football players receive as many as 1,500 hits to the head in a single season, depending on their position. That’s 15,000 in a 10-year playing career, not to mention any blows they received in college, high school, and peewee football. And those hits have consequences: concussions and, according to recent research, permanent brain damage. It’s not just football, either. Hockey, lacrosse, and even sports like cycling and snowboarding are contributing to a growing epidemic of traumatic brain injuries. The CDC estimates that as many as 3.8 million sports-related concussions occur in the U.S. each year. That number includes not only professionals but amateurs of all levels, including children. Perhaps most troubling, the number isn’t going down.
In the past two years, the outrage surrounding sports-related concussions has mounted. In January 2011, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) called for a Federal Trade Commission investigation of the football helmet industry for “misleading safety claims and deceptive practices,” which the agency is currently pursuing. In June 2012, more than 2,000 former NFL players filed a class-action suit against the league as well as Riddell, the largest football-helmet manufacturer and an official NFL partner, accusing them of obfuscating the science of brain trauma. The litigation could drag on for years and cost billions of dollars.
The real issue is that lives are at stake. In 2006, this fact became tragically clear when former Philadelphia Eagles star Andre Waters committed suicide by shooting himself. Subsequent studies of his brain indicated that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a form of brain damage that results in dementia and is caused by repeated blows to the head. A sickening drumbeat of NFL suicides has followed, including former stars Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, and Junior Seau, who by one estimate suffered as many as 1,500 concussions in his career.
For equipment manufacturers, the demand for protective headgear has never been greater. Leading companies, as well as an army of upstarts, have responded by developing a number of new helmet designs, each claiming to offer unprecedented safety. The trouble is that behind them all lie reams of conflicting research, much of it paid for, either directly or indirectly, by the helmet manufacturers or the league.
For players or coaches or the concerned parents of young athletes, it’s hard to know whom to believe. And despite all the research and development, and the public outcry, the injuries just keep coming. What makes the situation even more tragic is that a helmet technology already exists that could turn the concussion epidemic around.
To understand why current helmets aren’t better at reducing concussions, consider the nature of the injury. A concussion is essentially invisible. Even the most advanced medical-imaging technology isn’t sensitive enough to show the physical manifestations, the damaged brain tissue. Diagnosis, then, is based entirely on symptoms and circumstances. Is the patient dizzy or confused, or was he briefly unconscious? Does he have a headache or nausea? Does he remember what happened, and did it look like he got hit in the head really hard?single page
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