The Cleveland Clinic is combining with helmet-maker Rawlings on independent research of concussions and other sports-related head and neck injuries that could include measuring the impact on the brain.
Doctors and scientists from the clinic's Neurological Institute and its Spine Research Laboratory will use equipment manufactured and donated by Rawlings to do research on helmets and other protective accessories used in both baseball and football. They will measure the equipment's ability to minimize impacts and will seek ways to assess the amount of injury to the brain, both initially and over time.
The Cleveland Clinic research team is led by Spine Research Laboratory director Lars Gilbertson, who says "concussion has become a signature injury of sports in this new millennium." The studies will try to determine the effects of single and multiple impacts to the heads of athletes and how to reduce those injuries through protective equipment.
"The performance lab is really a stage, if you will, for us to look at a variety of safety issues as it relates to sports," said Dr. Edward C. Benzel, who chairs the department of neurosurgery at the Cleveland Clinic. "Obviously, Rawlings and the clinic are interested in ways in which we can help them make better and safer equipment by using science to look at better helmet design in football and baseball, and other ways to minimize spinal and head injuries."
David Hill, the senior director of fall product development at Rawlings, notes improvement in protective equipment, particularly helmets, is possible and necessary.
"The question the entire industry and public are coming to grips with, and justifiably so it is getting the appropriate focus," Hill said, "is everyone in the helmet business agrees that the current helmets are probably not the best to deal with the concussion dynamic."
So the Cleveland Clinic, which already was aware of Rawlings' work with baseball batting helmets — Mets third baseman David Wright began wearing the Rawlings-designed S100 batting helmet in July 2009 — approached the manufacturer about further research.
"The Clinic could take us to completely new areas, that is what we are excited to find out," Hill said.
The research won't center on professional football alone. Indeed, when Benzel gets phone calls from mothers of youth players saying "my son has to have this," he is encouraged by the interest — even if the equipment is not yet available.
"I believe the awareness is increasing," Benzel said. "It's a cultural thing and I see that culture changing with the emphasis on this area. There certainly is a great emphasis in the coaching community; I can only speak to the comments I have heard with coaches, and I'm hearing it more than I have heard it before and do believe it is in the conversation everywhere in regards to techniques and the use of the helmet. I believe it will continue to evolve."
Rawlings, which designed the original sets of football shoulder pads, already has protective equipment worn by nearly 200 NFL players. Its NRG Quantum helmet for adults and youths weighs 3 pounds and will be on the market in March.
Hill notes that the new helmet will have an air bag technology that does not break down, and its "impact qualities" will be much more consistent in the long term.
"The industry relies a lot on foams and we have found foam is great and tests well, but it tends to break down over time," Hill said. "We also have a system to customize the fit you need as a player."
Benzel wonders if the advancements in helmet technology — not to mention other equipment — have become a detriment to player safety. He suggests there is a need to find ways to deflect energy from tackles and collisions rather than absorb it.
"It is probably true that if we played the game of football without helmets, there probably would be less concussions," he said. "As we design what is perceived as better equipment, players feel they are more invincible and they are taking more and more chances and taking harder hits. It's kind of hard to keep ahead of that, but we can in the area of designing equipment that is specific to the injury that is going to be incurred."