By Ken Reed

NFL executives, and football lovers everywhere, continue to hope that at some point a magic helmet will be created that makes taking blows to the head in football safe.

The problem is, nobody can conceive of how you can put a helmet inside the human skull to protect the brain that’s floating around unprotected inside. Blows to the head cause the brain to crash into the side of the skull, like Jello bouncing off the sides of a bowl when shaken.

Dr. Lee Goldstein, a psychiatrist and researcher with the CTE Center at Boston University, which is a leading research institution for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease linked to repetitive blows to the brain, when asked what sort of technological breakthrough would protect a player against CTE says, without smiling, “A force field that keeps a player from blocking or tackling you.”

Nevertheless, a handful of scientists continue to search for the technological breakthrough that would allow for the development of helmets that would keep the brain safe in a game in which the average college and pro player undergoes 700 to 1,000 blows to the head a year. It is these mostly sub-concussive blows, that research has shown leads to CTE, not the severe traumatic collisions that result in concussions.

“I can say with great certainty that there is no correlation between a single concussion and CTE,” says Dr. Goldstein. “It’s the accumulation of hits.”

Nevertheless, some scientists, funded by a variety of research grants (some from the NFL), continue to believe that it’s possible to one day create a high-tech helmet that will make it safe to play tackle football.

Dr. David Camarillo, a former college football tight end and now a Ph.D. bioengineer at Stanford University, believes he has discovered a new helmet shock absorber that could reduce concussions by 75 percent. While other scientists question that number, even if the number of concussions could be cut in half some day, it would be a great thing. In addition, a high-tech helmet like this would also make skull fractures virtually non-existent.

However, once again, when it comes to CTE, it’s the accumulation of sub-concussive hits to the head that are the culprit, not concussions.

“My fear is that a better helmet will give false assurances,” says Dr. Goldstein. “It’s like developing a better cigarette filter. It’s smoother and it might not give you a hacking cough. But you still get lung cancer.”

A recent study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Rochester placed sensors in the helmets of 38 Division III college players and measured hits in practices and games for an entire season. They discovered that while only two players sustained concussions during the season, two-thirds of the players had structural damage and changes in their brains. A Purdue University study ructural damage and changes in their brainhad similar findings. That’s scary stuff.

While tackle football can’t be made safe, it can be made safer than it is today. It simply means reducing contact substantially during the season.

Other than not playing the game, the only thing that will significantly reduce sub-concussive brain trauma, as well as limit concussions, is greatly reducing the number of full-contact practices and scrimmages during the season. That’s exactly what the Ivy League did. The Canadian Football League recently followed suit.

It’s crystal clear. The appropriate action for youth, high school, college and pro football is simple: A policy that bans all full-contact practices once the season starts and stringently limits full-contact practices in the off-season and preseason.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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