In April 2018, the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) announced the results of an annual study to assess the laboratory performance of football helmets worn by NFL players.
The results of the laboratory tests are displayed on a poster and shared with NFL players, club equipment managers, and club medical, training and coaching staffs to help inform equipment choices. In addition to the ranking, other factors should be considered by players when choosing a helmet, including fit, comfort, retention, durability and the player’s medical history.
The NFL also created an educational video (see above) for players, coaches and club personnel about evaluating helmet performance.
The laboratory test conditions are intended to represent a subset of potentially concussive head impacts in the NFL. The results of this study should not be extrapolated to collegiate, high school, or youth football. It is important to note that no helmet can completely protect against serious brain and/or neck injuries a player might sustain while playing football.
Biomechanical Testing to Assess Helmet Performance
The goal of the study, as in prior years, was to determine which helmets best reduced head impact severity under laboratory conditions simulating a subset of concussion-causing impacts sustained by NFL players during games. The extensive tests were developed and performed by a team of biomechanical engineering experts.
While NOCSAE (National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment) offers a certification test that guarantees a minimum level of safety for all helmets, the NFL/NFLPA study ranks the relative performance of the helmets that were tested—from the best performers to the lowest.
“We use some unique metrics,” said Dr. Jeff Crandall, Director of The Center for Applied Biomechanics at The University of Virginia and Chairman of the NFL Engineering Committee. “We looked at a subset of concussions that occur on field… We took the players involved, we looked at their speeds, the impact locations, and the orientation of their head and neck and we recreated that in the laboratory with dummies and impactors.” These tests measure both linear and angular acceleration and velocities.
In addition to the laboratory testing, the NFL conducts an annual survey of the helmets players are wearing, which allows the engineers to evaluate the on-field performance of helmets in terms of concussions per play for a given helmet model.
“We were able to show that the laboratory test data correlated with on-field performance,” said Dr. Kristy Arbogast, the Co-Scientific Director and Director of Engineering for the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and an advisor to the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). “It really gave us more confidence that the ranking we show on the poster has relevance for the players.”
Moving Players into Better-Performing Helmets
Based on the results of this 2018 study and the opinions of the biomechanical experts involved, the NFL and NFLPA will prohibit 10 helmet models from being worn by NFL players. In previous seasons, NFL players could choose any helmet as long as the helmet passed current NOCSAE certification standards.
Players new to the NFL and returning players who did not previously wear one of the prohibited helmets during the 2017 season will not be permitted to wear the low-performing helmets for the 2018 season. “NFL players are encouraged to transition into a top performer before the start of the 2018 season if they can do so,” said Dr. Arbogast.
This means that roughly more than 200 players will move out of these lower-performing helmets and into helmets that have been shown to be better performers.
Advancing Player Health and Safety through Data
Following a 16 percent increase in concussions during the 2017 season, NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills issued a call-to-action to reduce concussions.
“When we saw the increase in concussions last season, we went to our engineers, our epidemiologists, and our medical experts and said, ‘What can we do to reduce this number? What changes could we make immediately?’”
NFL leaders, clubs and the wide variety of experts in medicine, engineering and science who form the NFL medical committees developed a three-pronged approach that aims to reduce injuries and drive behavioral changes, including helmet choice.
“Each year, our engineers from the Players Association and the NFL test helmets in the lab to see how they perform, and we think getting players into better-performing helmets is an important step,” said Dr. Sills.
The helmet laboratory test conditions are intended to represent a subset of potentially concussive head impacts in the NFL. The results of this study should not be extrapolated to collegiate, high school, or youth football.