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The Future of NFL Head Safety is in Seattle

Wednesday, February 03, 2016


The NFL recently reported that concussions rose 58 percent in regular-season games; the highest number reported in four years. There were 182 reported concussions, reversing the downward trend since 2012.

NFL Senior Vice President of Health and Safety Policy Jeff Miller said that they’re trying to figure out why concussion numbers rose so much (up from 115 last season). Having followed this topic extensively for a post-graduate thesis, there could be a myriad of explanations, including increased concern on behalf of the players for their own health and safety (think Ben Roethlisberger taking himself out of the game). The only thing that gave the NFL more grief than Tom Brady over the past decade is grappling with the concussion epidemic, as it has had to admit (without admitting) that it simply didn’t do enough to ensure the safety of its players though a multi-million-dollar settlement.

According to the team at VICIS, the Seattle-based company started in 2013 by Dr. Sam Browd, Dr. Per Reinhall, and Dave Marver, it was quite clear that they all knew the current NFL helmets could be vastly improved upon. Dr. Browd, the head of Seattle Children’s Hospital concussion unit and Associate Professor of Neurological Surgery at the University of Washington, already had experience as an ‘Unaffiliated Neurologic Consultant to the NFL and an Independent Neurologic Consultant to the Seattle Seahawks working as a concussion spotter on sidelines during game. According to Ray Vincenzo, Public Relations director for VICIS, Dr. Browd saw far too many young athletes coming through his office who were forced to quit the sport they loved because it was simply unsafe for them to continue play. This was especially the case for high school football players.

VICIS, a spinoff of the UW concussion research and prevention team that won the Head Health Challenge II, an initiative sponsored by Under Armour, GE and the NFL to advance the development of technologies that can detect early stage mild TBIs and improve brain protection, has won much attention after the success of its submission. ‘Challenge I’ focused on methods for diagnosis and prognosis of mild TBIs, ‘Challenge II’ sought innovative approaches through new technologies for preventing and identifying brain injuries and ‘Challenge III’ invited competitors to develop advanced materials for impact mitigation. The winning design was a prototype of the ‘Zero 1,’ a multilayered helmet that mitigates linear and rotational impact forces.

The design is far more sophisticated than the current foam-padded helmets that the players use today. The Lode Shell™, or the outermost layer of the helmet, absorbs impact by “locally deforming, like a car bumper.” Local deformation is a design that carmakers used for decades to disseminate blunt force (since carmakers already concluded more padding did not necessarily reduce injury as it could cause issues with friction and spinal injury). The second layer, or the Core Layer™ employs a highly-engineered columnar structure that moves “omni-directionally to reduce linear and rotational forces.” It works with the Lode Shell to reduce impact by leveraging the principals of physics to “withstand multiple seasons of play.” The Arch Shell™is the interior of the helmet and comes in three sizes for optimal fit. Sizing is determined by the Axis Fit System which, instead of using the traditional head circumference to fit a helmet on players, incorporates head length and breadth measurements to account for unique human head anatomy. Finally, the Form Liner™ is the innermost part of the helmet that works in unison with the Arch Shell and is made of special foams and waterproof textiles that conform to the player’s “unique head topography and distributes pressure uniformly around the head.” Altogether, there are 12 different sizing combinations available for players to choose from.  

In addition to the $10 million in funding it has earned, VICIS has the support of its Coalition members, including Hall of Fame quarterback and investor Roger Staubach. He, along with other members of the sports community (such as Seattle Seahawk Doug Baldwin) help with product development and bridging the gap between the prototype and the helmet that will be worn on field. For now, the helmet has only been used on dummies in “drop tests,” but will soon be tested on-field.

Whilst the Head Health Challenge garners a wonderful sentiment that the NFL is dedicated to the health of its athletes, teams like that of Dr. Browd’s and his colleagues at VICIS make it abundantly clear that doctors knew further developments in concussion prevention were available. Given the staggering amount of money at the NFL’s fingertips, I can’t help but criticize that soliciting this form of dialogue through open submissions did not come sooner. According to Vincenzo, the NFL has been a source of support but not yet a collaborator on the project. Their relationship is positive. Refreshingly, while VICIS appreciates all the media attention it received since the unveiling of their product, the focus remains on “building a better helmet” in time to see it on NFL and Division I NCAA athletes for the 2016 season. Amidst my critical tone, however, Vincenzo reminded me that uncertainties remain in concussion research and technology. After all, no one can ever promise the football (or any sport for that matter) can ever be concussion-free. But thanks to companies like VICIS, it looks like they’re going to be much less common.

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.


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