Head Games: Helmet Tech in Football (and Hockey, and Skiing, and...)

A brain may be a terrible thing to waste, but that hasn't stopped legions of athletes from stepping onto the football field to bang heads in pursuit of gridiron glory. Football players are notoriously stubborn when it comes to protecting (or not protecting) their noggins.

Even the invention of the football helmet, credited by some to Navy midshipman Joseph Reeves, came as an act of defiance to medical warnings. Before the Army–Navy game in 1893, a Navy doctor told Reeves, who would go on to become the "Father of Carrier Aviation," that one more blow to the head might result in death or insanity. Rather than miss a date with his rival servicemen, Reeves enlisted the help of a cobbler to fashion a rudimentary helmet made of leather straps. Navy won the game 6–4, and Reeves survived his playing career.

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More recently, doctors have backed up their cautionary words with studies establishing a strong link between repeated concussions and cognitive impairment. And late last month the National Football League—after a lengthy review of how its teams handle head injuries—enacted an immediate policy change regarding concussions. 

The new rules prohibit players who experience concussion-like symptoms (memory loss, dizziness) from returning to the game. Previously, only players knocked unconscious were banned from resuming play. With all the attention athletic head injuries are attracting, Popular Mechanics decided to survey the myriad playing fields to find out what's considered state-of-the-art when it comes to skull safety.

When Riddell unveiled its Revolution model in 2002, it was the first major advance in football headgear technology in a quarter-century, and the first helmet designed specifically to reduce concussions. The major innovation of the Revolution is its exterior shell, dubbed the Tru-Curve. This new shell provides increased coverage on the side of the head, along the jaw line. Riddell claims players who wear the Revolution are 30 percent less susceptible to concussions.

Yet even with its innovations, the Revolution sticks to the standard football-helmet format of a polycarbonate shell with internal foam padding that Riddell first introduced 70 years ago. The truly revolutionary football helmet might be the Xenith X1, conceived by former Harvard quarterback Vin Ferrara, which ditches the foam padding. Instead, the X1 relies on an internal system called the Shock Bonnet.

The flexible bonnet conforms to the wearer's head and is separated from the external plastic shell by a set of 18 hollow thermoplastic shock absorbers. On impact these puck-shaped devices compress to absorb the energy of the hit. Theoretically, this reduces the jarring of the head inside the helmet, thus reducing the likelihood of brain injuries.

Skiing & Snowboarding
The jury remains out on helmet's effectiveness in preventing serious brain injuries on the slopes. According to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), during the 2008–09 ski season, nearly half of all skiers and in the United States wore helmets, an increase of almost 25 percent from 2002–03. Yet even as helmet use increased, the number of skiing-related deaths has remained steady. Dave Byrd, the NSAA's director of education and risk, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that for skiers traveling at speeds in excess of 14 mph, which most do, a helmet is unlikely to make much difference.

The efficacy debate notwithstanding, ski and snowboard helmet-tech development has marched on, and those who do opt for headgear have a plethora of lightweight and streamlined models from which to choose. State-of-the-art consumer models from manufacturers such as Giro and Uvex are made from polycarbonate shells molded with shock-absorbing polystyrene foam. This "in-mold" construction eliminates the need for glued-in padding. Helmet makers have also created models that integrate not only goggles, but also personal audio systems with tiny speakers built into earpieces.

But that only pertains to recreational skiers. Professionals seem damned if they do, damned if they don't. The International Ski Federation mandates that all competitors wear helmets that conform to rigorous standards, but traveling at speeds sometimes exceeding 75 mph on rock-hard, icy courses, downhill ski racers are particularly prone to horrific head injuries, even with helmets. Wearing a helmet, for example, didn't prevent Swiss downhiller Daniel Albrecht from ending up in a three-week coma last January after he crashed while racing in Austria.

Ice Hockey
Considering the various factors that make up the game of hockey—a frozen playing surface, a hard rubber puck traveling at high speeds, sharp skate blades, body checks and stick-wielding competitors—helmet use seems like it should be a given. Yet it wasn't until 1979 that the National Hockey League made protective headgear compulsory. Goal tenders on the professional level didn't begin regularly wearing face masks until 1960, when Montreal Canadiens' goalie Jacques Plante started the trend. After having his face ripped open during a 1959 game against New York, Plante—who had previously fractured his jaw, nose and skull—was able to convince his coach to allow him onto the ice wearing a custom-made fiberglass mask (à la Friday the 13th's Jason).

Goalie tech has come a long way since Plante's rudimentary, yet revolutionary, safety measure. These days the mode in masks is the so-called hybrid mask, also known as the mage-style (mask + cage). Top-shelf masks from makers like Warwick and Sportmask combine resilient shells made of high-grade fiberglass and resin with a steel face-guarding cage and interior foam padding that absorbs impact.

For four more high-tech helmets, check out the full story from Popular Mechanics.