SBJ/July 25-31, 2016/Leagues and Governing Bodies

‘Soft’ helmet to debut in NFL this fall

A new “soft” football helmet funded in part by the NFL has received a key certification and is in line to be worn on the field for games this season.

The product marks another touch point in the continuing narrative for the NFL that involves concussions and player health and safety. The helmet technology is unique for its focus on the headgear’s exterior, but what’s also notable is that the helmet is an offshoot of the NFL’s $60 million Head Health Initiative, launched by the league in 2013 with General Electric and Under Armour.

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin is an equity investor in the helmet’s manufacturer, Vicis, and plans to wear the headwear this fall.

“I do plan on wearing it,” Baldwin said via email, “and I was part of the developing team to bring the product to its current state. I am supportive of it because it is going to save brains. I think once people realize the value of it and its game-changing safety application, it will be easy for players to want to move to the Vicis helmet.”

So far, the Head Health Initiative has contributed $750,000 to Vicis, a University of Washington offshoot that also has raised more than $19 million from a group of angel investors that includes both neurological surgeons and NFL players. The company is eligible for another $1 million from the Head Health Initiative based on whether the helmet passes certain technical milestones this year.

Players typically work through their team trainers for procuring helmets, but players are allowed to bring in their own helmets so long as the product has passed the NFL’s mandatory certification tests. That’s the case now with the Vicis helmet.

“The choice of helmet is up to each player, based on his assessment of safety and performance,” said Vicis co-founder and CEO Dave Marver in a statement. “We hope to earn Doug’s trust and that of every other player who loves contact sports.”

It was unclear how many other players might don the Vicis helmet this fall, including among the company’s angel investors. Hall of famer Jerry Rice is an investor. Marques Colston is also a backer of the product, but he was unsigned to a player contract as of last week.

Vicis’ strategy is to get the helmet onto pro and college players before it starts selling to the masses. Last month, the Safety Equipment Institute, which conducts testing for the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, approved the Vicis helmet. With that test passed, the NFL gave its approval for the helmets use on its fields this fall.

“There are no additional steps they need to take for their equipment to be chosen by our players,” said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.

It’s unclear how many NFL players will wear Vicis helmets on the field this fall.
Photo by: VICIS


NFL helmets to date have come predominantly from a short list of companies. Most players today wear products from Riddell or Schutt. Xenith, a relative newcomer to the field, also has a presence on the field. In each case, the helmets have been hard-shell products, remnant of the 1940s, when football phased out leather headgear in hopes of protecting players from skull fractures. Since then, advances in helmet technology have revolved around what is inside the shell, not the exterior itself. Vicis maintains that a softer shell absorbs impact better than the harder material.

While there are other certifications Vicis might want to obtain, it could wait until it starts selling the product commercially before pursuing those. Stefan Duma, who oversees Virginia Tech’s well-regarded sports equipment testing program, wrote in an email, “Right now it is not being sold publicly. Once it is, we will buy it, test it and rate it on our web.”

An early Vicis helmet design prototype
Photo by: RANDY RONQUILLO / VICIS
Asked in a follow-up query whether theoretically a softer shell should help reduce concussions, Duma replied, “The shell and the padding have to work together, so I do not have an opinion on one versus the other. Any company would have to optimize both the shell and padding. Current shells deform some. The new Vicis appears from their media video to deform much more. In the end, the entire system has to work together.”

The thought in construction is that the shell deforming means pressure is
Former player Nate Burleson examines a Vicis helmet with Vicis’ Dave Marver.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
being absorbed by the helmet rather than by the player’s head.

The Vicis helmet isn’t the only new storyline for the NFL when it comes to the player safety. Last week, the league cut ties with controversial doctor Elliot Pellman, who had come to epitomize the NFL’s previous denial of a link between brain trauma and concussions. Pellman co-chaired the league’s mild traumatic brain injury committee from 1994 until 2007, a period when the NFL denied a link between brain trauma and concussions. Since then, he continued to have a role with the league, but the NFL has shifted gears on head trauma, including the creation of the
Dave Marver, co-founder and CEO of Vicis
Photo by: VICIS
Head Health Initiative, which has funded dozens of player safety projects since its 2013 start.

“There is no higher priority than the health and safety of our players,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a memo to owners last week disclosing the Pellman news along with noting the league’s intention to hire a chief medical officer. “We have made important progress in this area, including rules changes, the addition of medical personnel, treatment of injuries, and better education for our players and football staffs.”

No other Head Health Initiative project is as far along as Vicis. Viconic, which makes a turf underlayer system intended to soften the impact when players hit the ground, had hoped to hit the market this summer but it is now delayed.

“The initial results we started receiving led us to make some modifications and has thus delayed the commercialization of the product,” wrote Jason Kroll, Viconic’s head of business development, in an email. “I am hopeful we will have it available later this fall depending on how the latest test results look.”

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