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Concussion Science, Stagnant Helmet Innovation and the NFL

Written by Steve Brachmann
Freelance Journalist
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Posted: February 2, 2014 @ 12:11 pm
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From U.S. Patent No. 8,528,118.

Today is Super Bowl XLVIII, which will be played in New Jersey not far from New York City. The high-profile nature of this event is also expected to attract a lot of money as well as public attention. Although some experts are skeptical, the host committee for Super Bowl XLVIII recently reported that the game would bring a total economic impact to the region of $600 million. Companies looking to advertise during the game will have to pay $4 million for a 30-second commercial slot.

It’s clear that a lot of businesses make money off of these football players. In recent years, as the popularity of the sport continues to grow, many of these players have expressed concerns over the safety of the game, and lawsuits have been filed against the National Football League, claiming they’re responsible for the health and safety of players who have struggled with the effects of concussions years after their playing days are over. Today, we wanted to take a look at recent helmet technologies being patented to see if the National Football League really is doing all it can to prevent player concussions.

 

Concussions in the NFL

The debilitating effects of brain trauma on players in the National Football League has been in focus for a few years now, but the last few years have seen an explosion in the number of lawsuits focusing on the issue. According to the online blog NFL Concussion Litigation, since the first official concussion lawsuit filed against the NFL in August 2011, nearly 250 other complaints against the NFL were filed through May 2013.

In total, more than 4,500 players have filed suit against the NFL for concussion injury-related claims, most of them retirees. Recently, a federal judge threw out a $765 million offer by the NFL to settle these claims as it likely wasn’t enough to cover the possibility of claims from 20,000 retired players. Awards would vary based on case severity and would range from $25,000 to $3 million.

With the press and media focusing on issues surrounding sports concussions, the number of injuries among NFL players began to pile up too. The average number of concussions sustained by NFL players rose from 5.4 per week to about 9 per week between 2009 and 2012. Some observers believe that these numbers may be conservative as team injury reports after bye weeks and the final game of the season often don’t include any concussions.

Recent National Football League reports indicate that the outlook for brain injuries sustained by players is growing a little brighter. League officials announced that, between 2012 and 2013, concussions sustained in the NFL dropped by 13 percent, from 261 reported injuries to 228 reports. Over the past two NFL seasons, the league reported that concussions as a result of head-to-head contact dropped by 23 percent.



 

Helmet Safety

Much has been made of the impact of stricter rules against helmet-to-helmet collisions on player safety. However, the helmets made for use by NFL players have come under closer scrutiny in recent days. Jahvid Best, a former running back for the Detroit Lions and a 2010 NFL first-round draft pick, is suing both the NFL and Riddell Inc. of Rosemont, IL, for unspecified economic and non-economic damages after concussions ended his career in November 2011. He’s also filed a workman’s compensation claim against the Lions.

Best’s lawsuit raises the question about the safety of the actual helmet equipment worn by players on the football field. Are changes to the NFL rules for hitting going to protect players alone, or could new helmet technologies be developed that aid the solution of this problem? Some of the reports linked above have cited players who are worried that simply avoiding helmet collisions will lead to more lower body injuries.

Much of the science behind how concussions are sustained is still underdeveloped, but rotational forces created on the brain when a body sustains an off-center hit may be to blame. Helmet safety standards enforced by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment have been largely unchanged since the early 1970s and typically only measures linear forces created in a straight impact.

The helmet industry has been pretty stagnant for decades, but the new push for better protections against concussions has been driving innovation within the industry over the past few years. Auto-racing safety expert Bill Simpson has developed a football helmet with a sliding adaptive foam layer attached to a polycarbonate shell. Jim Wegener, a former medical professional from Montana, has invented a safety latch for football helmets that can prevent helmets from popping off when a player is hit. However, concussion science is still at such an early stage that most developers cannot argue that their prototypes will definitely reduce concussions.

 

Riddell Helmet Patents

From U.S. Patent No. 8,548,768, titled “System and Method for Evaluating and Providing Treatment to Sports Participants.”

As the major developer of football helmets for use in the National Football League, Riddell is a major force in the field of helmet safety, as the Jahvid Best lawsuit suggests. Any intellectual property holdings that this corporation may have which protect safer helmet innovations may help Riddell present itself as interested in preventing concussions to football players. We’ve scanned Riddell’s recently issued patents to see what they’ve been focusing on when developing equipment upgrades.

One of the most recent patents protecting helmet technologies for Riddell was issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in September 2013. U.S. Patent No. 8528118, entitled Sports Helmet, protects a plastic shell with a front region, crown region, rear region and two side regions, both sides connected to a chin strap assembly. This patent discusses the desire to reduce the size and weight of a face guard to prevent player irritation when putting the helmet on. As to any safety concerns, the patent states, “The helmet of the present invention is believed to offer protection to football players, but it is believed that no helmet can, or will ever completely prevent head injuries to football players.” Reduced irritation, lighter face guards and better jaw protection are also the goal of U.S. Patent No. 7954177, which is titled Sports Helmet and was assigned to Riddell in July 2011.

Riddell, however, has been involved in developing systems for better detection of and treatment for concussions. U.S. Patent No. 8548768, titled System and Method for Evaluating and Providing Treatment to Sports Participants, protects a system of monitoring physiological parameters for athletes through multiple reporting units, each unit providing a unique identifier for a single player. The reporting units monitor athletes during sports activity to calculate head impacts and recommend evaluation and treatment based on certain parameters. The system can measure full-time head acceleration during impacts, helping to contribute to knowledge about concussions as well as diagnosis.



 

Other Helmet Safety Patents

From U.S. Patent No. 8,566,988, which is titled “Helmet With Columnar Cushioning.”

Others, however, have been busy working under the assumption that concussions can be prevented by helmets. U.S. Patent No. 8566988, which is titled Helmet With Columnar Cushioning, protects the manufacture of a helmet designed to provide better protection against rotational or shear forces that can affect the brain from glancing blows on the human body. The patent describes a cushioning element located within a helmet shell which is flexible enough to move with the skull rotationally. Issued in October 2013, the patent is assigned to Prostar Athletics LLC of Brooklyn, NY.

Helmets aren’t specifically cited in U.S. Patent No. 8528119, titled Impact Energy Management Method and System. However, the compressible cell technology described in the patent could be used in the construction of protective headgear with the aim of preventing impact-related injuries, including concussions. A protective structure described in the patent is comprised of impact-absorbing compressible cells. On impact, the thermoplastic material composing the exterior transmits first-phase impact to the fluid-filled cells, which are attached to a venting system that manages liquid flow and the remainder of the impact. This technology, patented in September 2013 by Xenith LLC of Lowell, MA, is designed to overcome limitations posed by conventional foam padding.

From U.S. Patent No. 8,510,863, titled “Impact Shock Absorbing Material.”

A different type of padding material is described in U.S. Patent No. 8510863, issued under the title Impact Shock Absorbing Material. This patent protects a layered shock-absorbing material that can spread impact across an area greater than the local impact. The anisotropic thermoplastic honeycomb material becomes instantly rigid upon impact, shunting the force of the impact and reducing the peak impact transmitted at any one moment. Issued in August 2013 to solo inventor James Riddell Ferguson of Winthrop, ME, this patented technology is designed to control the rotational forces cited above as a possible cause of concussions.

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About the Author

Steve Brachmann is a writer located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than five years. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. He also provides website copy and documents for various business clients.

 

 


8 comments
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  1. If you want tot see a patent for an innovative and unusual helmet, take a look at US8402568. Maybe it’s not ideal for the NFL, but it certainly has a distinctive look (or lack of, thereof…)

  2. Benny,

    Are you trying to make a point with your subtle comment of “or lack of, thereof…“?

    Are you (again) trying to read a legal document as an engineering document and applying a non-legal version of “gee, that is obvious” ?

    You may very well be correct in the final analysis that the invention granted as patent US8402568 is obvious over prior art, but you should recognize that the patent protects only that which it claims, and the claims must be understood in their legal context.

    Your ‘habit’ of posting with such seeming ridicule without addressing ANY underlying legal position is rather annoying. You continue to post in a drumbeat of “patents are bad – see this one must be obvious.”

    If you want to make a point that the prior art is there to show the patent improvidently granted – say so and make that point. But as far as I know, as of the priority date of 2005, an advance of such an airbag-in-a-helmet system may very well have been patent worthy. While airbags in general were developed in the 1980’s, small supplemental airbags were not introduced until much later: in the second half of the 1990’s, and the application to motorcycles occurred even later – full bike systems not being introduced until 2006. You should notice that this date is after the legal critical date.

  3. Benny,

    I am almost certain that the helmet with the “sliding adaptive foam layer” described in the Pop Sci story is not the Simpson SGH football helmet. The SGH uses a custom kevlar composite shell with a form of EPP/EPS foam in a single unit. The MIPS helmet prototype that is described in the Pop Sci link is the work of Peter Halden and Hans von Holst in Sweden. The Pop Sci article is a bit misleading in the way it juxtaposes the photos with the text.

  4. Anon,
    What point are you trying to make with your post?
    All I did was point out innovative and interesting helmet technology, Thought you might find it interesting. I expressed no opinion whatsoever on this patent, (or any other helmet patent). I don’t see why you go off at a tangent telling me about my (non-existent) analysis, ridicule etc. There is nothing in my post except a pointer to a patent,
    I’ll explain the comment “lack of, thereof” – the product doesn’t look like a helmet. That’s all.

  5. My apologies for over-reacting then Benny.

  6. Anon,
    Apology accepted. Lets keep it friendly on the blog.

  7. Just wanted to add to the info. The NFL, GE, and Under Armor, joined together in an effort to search out new technologies to address there issues that you describe. They are ponying up 10 million dollars to further r&d on the matter. It’s called the Head Health Challenge 2, and is hosted by NineSights. Results from there effort will be posted sometime in September.

  8. I tried to send a comment, just checking to see if it’s still open.