Fashion over function: A safer helmet battles the 'cool' factor

The VICIS helmet was rated No. 1 for reducing head impact severity by the NFL and NFLPA. Courtesy of VICIS

Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Najee Goode recently tested a new helmet in preparation for a preseason game.

Walking out to the practice field with coach Doug Pederson, Goode slapped his hands on the sides of the helmet and said, “Got the VICIS! Concussion proof, man! Going to try it out.”

Pederson jokingly responded: “Just don’t fall over while you’re wearing it,” suggesting the larger helmet made him look top-heavy.

The VICIS helmet, which was rated No. 1 for reducing head impact severity by the NFL and NFL Players Association, includes a shell designed to give way when a player is hit in the head and absorb the impact like a car bumper.

“The helmet is crazy because it bends and moves when you get hit and stuff,” Goode said. “So when you’ve got it on it actually feels like you’re not wearing anything. ... It’s definitely like the new wave of technology coming on.”

VICIS, a Seattle-based startup, was founded in 2013 by pediatric neurosurgeon Sam Browd, mechanical engineer Per Reinhall and CEO Dave Marver. In March, it gained some momentum when NFL and NFLPA testing ranked VICIS’ Zero1 helmet first in reducing head impact severity. There were 244 diagnosed concussions in the NFL in 2016. For the health of the sport, and those playing it, the league is working to reduce head injuries and brain trauma.

“We could see that there was increasing concern about head health in football and other sports,” Marver said. “And we just weren’t seeing the pace of innovation and equipment that we thought was necessary to address the issue. So we thought we could make a difference.”

The close to 250 diagnosed concussions last season is on par with the average over the past five years. In search of answers, the NFL launched a $60 million initiative called the Engineering Roadmap, designed to incentivize the marketplace to advance helmet technology. It includes a series of innovation challenges. VICIS was one of the winners of the GE/NFL Head Health Initiative and was awarded $750,000 in grants to aid in research and development.

Dr. Jeff Crandall, chair of the NFL’s head, neck and spine engineering subcommittee, called the VICIS advancements promising.

“The shell can actually deform and absorb energy to a much greater degree than what would occur in a traditional helmet,” Crandall said. “Then they have an inner liner, which is sort of like a series of columns that actually compress and buckle in an omnidirectional fashion,” which limits rotational acceleration, a primary cause of concussions, evidence suggests.

But how does it look?

The issue, as with any new piece of equipment, is getting the players to buy in. An informal survey of NFL teams by ESPN reporters showed only a handful of players are wearing the new helmet. The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers each have six players who plan to wear the helmet this season; the Houston Texans, New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals have five.

Also, at least seven Kansas City Chiefs players, including quarterback Alex Smith, were wearing VICIS Thursday night against the New England Patriots, according to Marver.

Goode’s test run in the VICIS was just that; he is no longer wearing it.

“It’s different, man. It’s not what I’m used to,” Goode said. “The look was a little weird.

“It definitely works. It’s a good helmet. It does everything it says it does. It was just something I was unfamiliar with as far as the feeling. But I mean it definitely works. I’ve got a big head so the helmet was extra huge on me.”

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz -- owner of arguably the most valuable brain in Philadelphia sports -- wore the VICIS helmet for one day before ditching it. Wentz gave it a test ride during an organized team activity, but quickly concluded it wasn’t for him.

“It’s just kind of big -- big and bulkier than the other ones," he said. "There’s a fine line, knowing it’s the safest but feeling comfortable in it at the same time.”

This spring, 20 college programs had players try the helmets and VICIS shipped them to 29 of the 32 NFL teams. Marver had hoped 50 NFL players will wear the helmets this season. But even though industry experts agree the technology is sound, VICIS faces obstacles if it wants to emerge as the market leader.

Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, along with quarterback Russell Wilson, plan to wear the helmet this season. Baldwin agreed there has been an adjustment period.

“It sits on your head differently,” Baldwin said. “It feels different because it feels more like a glove, rather than an overall shell. And then there’s 13 degrees more of peripheral vision because of the way that the helmet is designed. And so as a receiver, I’m seeing a lot of noise that I am not used to seeing. And so it took a period to get adjusted to that, to not get distracted by that extra sight.”

The VICIS helmet is heavier than most. According to an independent study by the Journal of Biomechanical Engineering, the average weight of the 30 helmets used at all levels of football is 4.0 pounds. The VICIS helmet is 4.83 pounds. Even some of the biggest advocates of the technology are reluctant to use it until the company finds a way to make it lighter.

While the ZERO1 is larger than most older helmets, NFL/NFLPA data provided by Marver states that it is three millimeters smaller in length and 14 millimeters shorter in height than the Riddell SpeedFlex.

Washington Redskins assistant equipment manager Scott Rotier doesn’t have any players wearing the VICIS and said some have been hesitant because of the way it looks.

“We’ve had a guy try it on and get fit for it, but he got to that [point] ... that when they looked at themselves in the mirror, it was so far out there from what they’ve seen before, they just weren’t that comfortable wearing it.”

Rotier added that players who have always worn traditional-looking helmets are more apprehensive to change into something different.

“They’re in that helmet because they don’t like the looks of the other helmets, I would say. Because not a lot of those traditional-style-looking helmets rank very high [in safety testing],” Rotier said. “Some of the guys just can’t get around that. They don’t like the look of wearing that helmet.”

NFL’s biggest issue

Head injuries are arguably the No. 1 threat to the league’s viability. In a recent study, signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy were present in 90 percent of deceased NFL players' brains that were donated to science.

Twenty-six-year-old Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel abruptly announced his retirement two days after the study went public. A team source said Urschel's decision was linked to those results. Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, 24 at the time and fresh off a strong rookie season, is among other recent retirees who pointed to concussions and long-term health as factors behind his early exit from the game.

Youth tackle football participation dropped 19 percent from 2009 to 2015 among children ages 6-12, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. While there are other factors at play, making the game safer could help keep it viable.

Because of the continued research and proof of the long-term effects of concussions, some players are beginning to expand their horizons on helmet safety. VICIS finished first in the head-impact testing, leading a group of 13 top helmets that produced similar statistical results.

“We’re beginning to see players change helmet preferences based upon some of the testing,” said Jeff Miller, the NFL's executive vice president of health and safety policy.

“The work that’s been done by Dr. Crandall and his colleagues with the players' association is providing our player population with more information around helmet choices than they’ve had in probably some period of time, so we think that it’s a very useful exercise.”

Current market leaders Riddell and Schutt have been working on innovations of their own.

“It’s one of those things where if all your options are safe helmets, they’ve rated out the best, now it’s the best fit,” said Erik Kennedy, the Seahawks' director of equipment. “What fits you well for the style that you play?”

Riddell is introducing something called Precision-Fit on its Speed Flex helmet this season, which makes use of a head-scanning technology. Based off the scan, a liner system is custom built to match the player’s head dimensions. Riddell believes it offers “significant protective and performance benefits,” according to Thad Ide, Riddell's senior vice president of research and product development. Riddell expects to have hundreds of the helmets on the field this fall.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins and two other Redskins plan to wear it in 2017.

“Immediately when they put them on, it was a ‘wow’ factor,” Rotier said. “It felt like nothing they had put on their head before as far as a helmet goes. It fit immediately, it fit perfectly; it was really comfortable. ... As long as it tests well, this is going to be the wave of the future I would think, getting to the point where the fit of the helmet is no longer a factor.”

Ide says 62 percent of NFL players wore Riddell helmets last season, a number that has held pretty steady year over year.

“Riddell is developing our own technologies and furthering our own goals of making the most protective helmet possible. It’s hard for us to really comment on the VICIS helmet because, frankly, there aren’t any out there that we’ve been able to evaluate,” Ide said. “Our understanding is that it’s a bigger helmet, a heavier helmet, it has considerably more [of] what we would call offset, which is the distance from the inside of the helmet shell to the wearer’s head -- thicker padding, so to speak, on the inside. All of those factors very much can affect the way a helmet performs in a laboratory test. I’m not sure how desirable they are as on-field characteristics.”

According to the Journal of Biomechanical Engineering, the Riddell SpeedFlex weighs 4.46 pounds compared to the VICIS at 4.83.

More research needed

While the lab results for VICIS are breeding optimism, Crandall notes, “there really is no substitute for that on-field evaluation.” That is the next step: combining the lab results with on-field performance. The NFL does not decide which helmets are worn on the field of play, other than requiring that they are NOCSAE certified. There are no plans for a league-mandated helmet despite the new advancements in technology and safety-testing results.

“Considering [the testing] is just one component of an NFL player’s comprehensive assessment when selecting a helmet -- other factors include discussions with the team equipment manager and medical staff, as well as helmet fit, player position and the player’s medical history -- there are no plans for a league-mandated helmet,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said.

Still, the league is trying to shape the future of its equipment to make it as safe as possible. The NFL believes a general all-purpose helmet will be developed within three years that will be safer. And the goal is to have position-specific helmets within five years.

To get a better appreciation for how the players’ experiences are different, the NFL plans on fitting helmets with sensors over the next several years. Once armed with the necessary data, companies should be able to take the next step in helmet safety. (Riddell is well positioned here, as it has been collecting sensor data at the collegiate and youth levels for years.)

“While VICIS is a significant step forward,” Crandall said, “we think through programs like the Engineering Roadmap, there’s a lot more of these technological advances that can be realized through additional attention, information and education.”

Added Kennedy: “What VICIS is doing is pushing the other manufacturers to make better helmets. And at the end of the day, that’s what everybody wants. They want to protect the players’ heads. And I think that, to me, is the better way. That’s what you have to do. I like it, but I’m still not 100 percent sure yet because you haven’t seen enough testing on the field. With that being said, you’ve got to get there some day. Somebody’s got to push the envelope.”