The first installment identified three sports—professional hockey, skiing, and snowboarding—in which statistics show helmet use had no impact on the wearer’s risk of traumatic brain injury (TBI). But statistics can be misleading.
Case in point: The rise in concussions among pro hockey players, who’ve been required to wear helmets since the 1979-1980 season, followed issuance of the league’s Concussion Program in 1997, which offered players, coaches, and trainers a greater understanding of the signs of concussion and how best to manage concussed players. It’s basic epidemiology: The numbers of those afflicted follows greater understanding of the affliction.
So next follows the question: How do we ‘engineer out’ the risk of concussion in sports? Our knee-jerk response, “Change the sport.” Which has happened.
Just this year, the U.S. Soccer Federation called for a ban on heading the ball among players aged 10 and under and placed limits on heading for those under age 14. The change follows a class action lawsuit filed by parents concerned about, you guessed it, concussions.
Even the National Football League has changed rules to engineer out concussions, dating as far back as 1943 when helmets were first made mandatory to 1980 when striking an opponent in the head, neck, and face was made illegal and as recently as 2011 when the kick line was moved from the 30- to the 35-yeard line and the kicking team could only fall back 5 yards from the kick line. The 2011 rules intended to increase the number of touchbacks and to slow the kicking team’s advance down field. Slowing a player’s momentum to a tackle presumably makes the tackle safer.
These and other changes to the sport of pro football appear to have led to a kinder, gentler sport as player concussion rates dropped 36% between 2012 (173 documented concussions) and 2014 (111 concussions). But—spoiler alert—that trend will likely reverse in 2015. Just 12 weeks into the 17-week NFL season (16 games per team with a bye week), the NFL has reported 108 concussions.
So, back to the issue at hand: What good are helmets, anyway?
Next blog: The Problem with Helmets: Part 3 (of 3) – Why Use A Helmet at All? – Of Helmet Innovation and Crash Test Dummies