The issue of brain trauma in football has become a weighty matter in recent years. But while young athletes continue to suffer concussions – to a large degree violent collisions are simply inherent in the sport – there’s been a concerted effort on the part of leagues, coaches and equipment manufacturers to make the game safer.
(The SDHSAA will soon decide whether to adopt the recommendations from the National Federation of State High School Associations, which outlined a set of “best practices” to reduce exposure to concussions for high school football players.)
One youth football league in Sioux Falls, the Siouxland Youth Football league, is looking to an innovative helmet design for an added measure of protection for its players.
The 12-team, faith-based league begins its first season in August, and when its fifth- and sixth-grade players take to USF’s Bob Young Field to play they’ll be wearing SG Helmets.
Using a blend of carbon and Kevlar, the helmet’s most pronounced feature is its reduced weight – the youth model weighing just 1.4 pounds compared to the standard 4-to-6 pound helmets most commonly used at the youth and high school levels.
It would appear to hold up to the testing, too, though the foam-like liner – which costs $26 to replace – has been known to endure cracks in testing.
“If you go by the drop test it’s twice as safe as any helmet on the market,” said SYFL founder Jeff Adler of the helmet.
The SG Helmet 2.0 and 2.5 were given five-star ratings in Virginia Tech’s most recent grades of adult helmets. The company points to tests conducted by an independent researcher, where its helmets performed well on tests concerning the amount of G forces felt by the head.
Adler heard about the helmet through a connection at his other job – at Cypress Risk Management in Sioux Falls – and became intrigued about its potential usefulness the more that he learned about it.
Adler’s not just a football devotee, but also an avid sprint car racing fan. SG Helmets, as it turns out, were designed by Motorsports Hall of Fame inductee Bill Simpson and Chip Ganassi, another experienced racer.
(The “S” from Simpson and “G” from Ganassi make up the company’s SG name.)
Simpson made a name for himself in racing for developing helmets and other life-saving equipment – most notably with fire-resistant suits – and transitioned to football helmets to fulfill a perceived need in the sport.
SG Helmets have even made their way into the pro game, where exclusive contracts can be cause for a relative dearth in helmet innovation.
“I knew what he’d done to protect that sport. I knew that he’d changed the safety of the fire suits and the helmet,” Adler said.
And so he looked further into the SG Helmet. Adler said the results from researchers affirmed clear safety advantages for the helmet.
“When Simpson builds a race car helmet, it’s designed so your head doesn’t move independently of the helmet – everything moves together,” Adler said. “The football helmets are designed with that same idea in mind.”
Helmet designs over the years focused on reducing skull fractures; Simpson’s helmet was designed with a focus on reducing concussions. That strategy is rooted in reducing the effects of rotational acceleration – cause for the brain and skull colliding with one another as the head moves – as opposed to just blunt force.
The potential added benefits come with a cost, though: On SG Helmet’s website youth and varsity models list for $299-324, with plenty of customization options that can raise the cost. That price can easily reach $400 per helmet within a few clicks.
For the SYFL, with a $250 registration fee to join the league, that means potentially running at a loss for the league’s first few years.
“We could have bought the same helmets that everybody else uses – for $300 less,” Adler said. “But after doing some research and knowing about these helmets, it was the pure fact that if my son is going to play football – he’s six – I couldn’t ever put him in one of those [standard] helmets.
“So I can’t put someone else’s kid in them, either.”
The underlying hope is to reduce the number of brain injuries in kids. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2009 that nearly 2 million brain injuries occur in adolescent athletes every year. Many of them are football players.
But while the aforementioned efforts – from leagues, coaches, new policies and programs, and potentially innovative technologies – would point to hope in terms of progress, new data suggest concussions aren’t going away.
It could be a necessary next step to make inroads with regard to safer equipment. For the SYFL, that will start with a helmet that’s almost three times lighter than the rest.