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Low Standards, Lax Oversight Lead to Unsafe Football Helmets

When your kids are old enough to drive, you enroll them in Driver Ed courses. When they need medicine, you read the label and dosage instructions carefully. But when they go out for tackle football, how do you know their equipment – especially the helmet, which is supposed to guard against brain injuries – will protect them?

Millions of American parents look inside the helmet for an emblem reading “MEETS NOCSAE STANDARD.” If it’s there, will the player be sufficiently protected?

Maybe not.

The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) is an industry group of helmet makers that has collectively agreed upon helmet standards for products. Notice that the name does not mention “safety,” only “standards.” The organization assumes no responsibility for ensuring the protectiveness of equipment bearing its seal, whether new or reconditioned. And the government exercises no oversight to require such responsibility.

New York Times Investigates Helmet Industry Standards

In a recent investigative report, the New York Times found that concussion, a serious brain injury afflicting some 100,000 high school football players every year, is not even mentioned in the NOCSAE standards for helmets – yet it is essentially the only nationwide organization of its kind. The only claim the company makes is to safeguard the wearer against a skull fracture, an injury that, since the introduction of NOCSAE-approved helmets in 1973, has virtually disappeared.

But the awareness of the impact of concussions on athletes, both young and old, has become a battle cry as both the NFL and state high school leagues have cracked down on head injuries in football. Concussion can have life-changing effects including problems with memory, bouts with depression, balance issues and disequilibrium, as well as nausea and vomiting. Swelling of the brain or internal bleeding may bring on additional symptoms, such as mental confusion and slurred speech. The only treatment is rest, and experts advise that if a concussion is experienced during sports or other recreational activities, the child should see a doctor before resuming that activity.

Currently, about 4.4 million children play tackle football, the sport most responsible for concussion injuries.

Standards for new helmets, reports the Times, are woefully outdated, virtually unchanged since 1973 – although today’s players are much bigger, faster, and harder-hitting. But standards for older helmets are far worse. Owing to careless manufacturing techniques and lax oversight of reconditioning methods, many thousands of children are wearing unsafe or out-dated helmets.

Some equipment makers are responding to the need for safer helmets with redesigns and new materials, among them Riddell and Xenith.

But NOSCAE still refuses to address concussion prevention in its industry standards. According to NOSCAE board member and Rawlings VP Art Chou, “Everyone’s afraid of being sued because if you say that certain helmets are better, you’re saying that millions of them out there now aren’t safe.”

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