AP Photo/Danny Johnston
Head injuries have been, unfortunately, frequent in the first two weeks of the 2012 college football season.
For most sports fans, the first image associated with that jarring word is a football player lying motionless on a field. It’s a harsh reality that the violent sport has an epidemic they need to conquer, for the safety of its players.
Recent research suggests there’s a correlation between extreme weather and the likelihood of head injuries.
Schutt Sports, whose football helmets are used at every level of play, began studying the effects of weather on helmet performance years ago. Traditional testing to determine the safety of helmets usually occurs at a sterile 72 degrees (with some exceptions -- a few tests are done above and below that mostly-sterile temperature), said Glenn Beckmann, Director of Marketing Communications at Schutt Sports. So the company began testing their helmets at a slew of temperatures, which yielded shocking results.
“For us, what we found is the performance of the helmets changes dramatically when those extreme temperatures, either hot or cold, are reached,” said Beckmann. “We've been lobbying for a few years that the testing protocol really needs to change to accommodate those different temperatures, because it really is a pretty significant difference.”
In other words, extremely hot or cold temperatures can lessen the effects of a helmet's padding to fully protect the head as well as it would in 72-degree heat, the study said. Therefore, Beckmann and others would like to see extreme temperatures brought into the tests in order to show how effective the helmets really are.
Unfortunately, Beckmann said years of testing yield a painful reality: Football helmets may only slightly reduce concussions, at best. While they are necessary to keep injuries like skull fractures out of the sport, helmets probably will never be able to completely prevent all head injuries.
"But our helmets will absorb more impact against a wider variety of temperatures than any other helmets on the field," Beckmann added.
Traditional foam has been the most common object used to absorb contact on the inside of a helmet. Recently, Schutt helmets have opted for Thermoplastic Urethane Cushioning, or TPU, instead of lining the interior of their helmets with foam. There's a reason for the switch -- Beckmann said the TPU Cushioning System does a better job of rolling with the punches in extreme temperatures.
In brutal heat, there's another scary aspect of the sport that helmet-makers have been forced to address in recent years -- body temperatures rising to dangerous levels during summer camps and early-season games. Beckmann insists traditional foam is actually a detriment in high heat as well, whereas Schutt's TPU Cushioning System comes through in the clutch.
"When you put a helmet on with foam, there's nowhere for the sweat or heat to go; it all just stays right there," said Beckmann. "It's almost like extra insulation for your head."
Schutt has conducted studies recently, using college football teams, to see how hot it can get inside a player's helmet during sweltering summer days. By placing sensors inside the helmets, they found temperatures consistently measure 123 degrees, which is the highest temperature the sensors can read.
As a result, helmet-makers have realized they have two beasts to conquer: concussions and heat-related illnesses.
"The focus of all the conversation right now is on concussions, and rightfully so," said Beckmann. "But we lose more players every year to heat-related problems than head injuries.
"The sad part about that is all heat-related injuries can be prevented. Every single one of them. And so we focus a lot on that; the cushions inside our helmets are open-sided. There's far less area that's covered, so there's more space between the cushions. So there's a lot of air flowing through there. One of our goals is to help players control their core body temperatures as much as they can to give the excess heat a place to escape and to let the body cool itself."
In the next year, Schutt plans to introduce a new helmet that weighs less than three pounds, according to Beckmann. It's intended to help ease the stress of heavy helmets on all players, but it should be especially useful for the youngest players, whose necks aren't as strong.
Weather might be one of the most unique aspects of football in comparison with other sports, and it can also be one of the most dangerous factors. Several teams at the professional level have moved into climate-controlled buildings for their games, but at other levels, the elements are still very much in play. Schutt and other competing helmet-makers continue attempting to combine technology with existing knowledge to block out the heat, and cold, as much as possible.
"What the industry has accomplished in the last 5 years has probably eclipsed what they'd accomplished the previous 20 years," he said.
With any luck, they will spend the next few years finding a way to tame the weather and eradicate that nasty word -- concussions -- from the football vocabulary.