Legislation targeting the makers of football helmets that was introduced in Congress back in March has resulted in a slew of lobbyists coming out of the woodwork from helmet makers, safety organizations, and advocacy groups.
Currently, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment oversees the safety standards of football helmets and other athletic equipment. The current helmet standard devised by NOCSAE requires helmets to withstand a 60-inch free fall without allowing too much force to reach the skull (essentially, a test to prevent fractured skulls), according to the New York Times. Problem is, the NOCSAE doesn’t require these same helmets to be tested against the forces suspected of causing concussions. (NOCSAE’s standards for hockey and lacrosse helmets do require testing against suspected concussion-causing forces.)
The proposed bills, known as the Children’s Sports Athletic Equipment Safety Act (H.R. 1127 and S. 601), would give the industry nine months to improve the safety standards of football helmets, including new standards for concussion risks and youth football helmets. If they failed to make substantial changes, the Consumer Product Safety Commission would develop safety regulations for football helmets.
The bills note that helmet makers don’t currently have a voluntary safety standard specifically for youth football helmets, despite the physiological differences in neck strength and head size between adults and children. The CPSC would also develop a new standard for all football helmets that addresses concussion risk, assuming the commission determines a standard is feasible given the current science behind concussions.
A few other key components of the bills:
• They would require third-party oversight of the safety testing and certification of youth football helmets.
• Helmets would be required to have labels warning of the limits of protection afforded by the helmet. The bill also requires helmet makers to place clearly legible labels with the date of manufacturing on the helmet, with a warning that the helmet’s protectiveness may decline over time.
• The Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general would have more power to any punish sports equipment manufacturers who make false and/or misleading claims about the safety benefits of their equipment.
“This isn’t just an issue about football,” Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico told the Times. “We have all sorts of athletic equipment that is out there to fulfill the role of safety or protection. So it seems to me, if you have a headband or a mouth guard, the same set of issues come up—misrepresentation issues. We’re trying to be broad.” (Udall sponsored the Senate bill.)
Udall has asked the FTC to investigate two helmet manufacturers for false and misleading claims about their helmets preventing concussions. One such manufacturer, Riddell, specifically marketed its “Riddell Revolution” helmet as a product that reduces concussion risk by 31 percent.
In response to the legislation, Riddell hired a lobbying firm that includes former Rep. Kenny Hulshof and two former Capitol Hill staffers, according to the Associated Press. Riddell spent $80,000 in the first quarter of 2011 on lobbying in relation to this bill, after spending next to nothing on lobbying in 2010.
NOCSAE also hired a lobbying firm, Locke Lord Strategies LP, for the first time in its 40-year history, as the organization has “no experience in D.C.,” NOCSAE executive director and general counsel Mike Oliver told the AP. Neither Riddell nor NOCSAE has taken an official position on the helmet legislation yet. Meanwhile, the nonprofit research and advocacy group Consumers Union has thrown its weight behind the bill, according to the AP.
This legislation could come just in the nick of time, as it turns out. A study released last week found that nearly 40 percent of NFL players wore a helmet last season that received the second-lowest rating for reducing the risk of concussions. According to Riddell, 38 percent of NFL players wore the VSR-4, which Riddell stopped selling in 2010. The company’s new model, the Revolution family of helmets, includes additional padding around the jaw area, and received much higher marks in the recent study.
And a study from Purdue University researchers last year found that some high school football players experience undiagnosed changes in brain function, regardless of whether or not they sustain concussions. The study monitored 21 high school football players through the use of accelerometers (which measure the force of impact), and identified 11 players who either were diagnosed with a concussion or received unusually high numbers of impacts to the head. Of those 11, three players were diagnosed with concussions during the season, four showed no changes in brain activity, and four showed changes in brain function despite never being diagnosed.
According to the bills, 20 percent of all high school football players suffer brain injuries in any given season, and 2006 statistics from the National Center for Injury Prevention found that 47 percent of high school football players sustain a concussion each season.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.