(USA TODAY) -- When the University of South Carolina opens preseason footballpractice Friday night, the plan is to have the Gamecocks, includingdefensive star Jadeveon Clowney, outfitted in Guardian Caps. The paddedshells, made of polyurethane fabric, are designed to fit over helmetsand reduce impacts to the head.
There's controversy whether thecaps violate helmet certification standards. But South Carolina tried 32of them on linemen in the spring, liked them and bought 75 more to goteam-wide for practice, says athletic trainer Clint Haggard.
"I'vetalked to our team physicians and discussed all that stuff, and I'vetalked to a bunch of people around the country," says Haggard. "Andwe're still going to use them. ... It seems like it will help."
Playersafety has become the catch phrase for colleges and pro football, withthe NCAA and the NFL also facing lawsuits over concussions. Punishmentin college football this season for "targeting" -- taking aim,especially at the head or neck, with apparent intent beyond a legaltackle or block -- will include ejection. The NFL is requiring playersto wear more pads and will penalize running backs who lead with thecrown of their helmets.
Lee Hanson, founder of the firm making theGuardian Cap, says his product reduces head impacts "up to 33%" in labtests. He gave out the caps them out for testing in 2011, sold about8,000 in 2012 ($55 individually with team discounts) and anticipates Heanticipated about 12,000 being used among youth, high school and collegeteams across the USA and Canada this year. Thirty-five states haveschools and/or leagues using at least 20 Guardian Caps.
TheGuardian Caps have compartments padded with foam rubber that arearranged on top of the helmets, and Hanson says using these compartmentsdissipates energy better than a solid shell. One issue is whether softshells might stick together or be more easily grabbed and cause neckinjuries. Hanson says his caps "just slip off of each other."
"Our goal," Hanson says, "is to provide the best protection to a kidas possible. ... If you want to protect your shoulders, you wearshoulder pads. And if you want to protect your head, you put morepadding. More padding on anything is better."
Build aconcussion-proof football helmet and the world will beat a path to yourdoor. Shy of that wishful goal, there's a surge in the business oftrying to protect the brain.
*A Pennsylvania firm offers extra head padding that includes bullet-proof vest material.
*Riddell,official helmet of the NFL and a co-defendant in the concussionlawsuits, is introducing this season a sensor system in the helmet thattransmits when impacts exceed a player's history on hits, geared foryouth and high school teams.
*Reebok has a new impact sensor that flashes when impacts exceed certain thresholds.
Sowhy does the Colorado High School Activities Association warn that anyschool using the Guardian Caps in games will not be in compliance withthe National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment(NOCSAE), which sets helmet certification, and cautions groups to "seekmore information" before using caps at any time.
Indeed, Hansonsays he has lost an order for 500 caps from a California youth leagueand other orders from various U.S. school districts, and at least oneleague is returning its 300 in use.
"There are coaches andathletic trainers and parents that have seen Guardian on their childrenfor the last two years, and they've seen the number of injuries decreaseon those teams," says Hanson. "Now, you're going to tell them to takethem off?"
Standards in question
Makers of sensorsdon't claim they diagnose concussions; the sensors are promoted asscreening tools. Makers of extra padding don't claim to preventconcussions, but they say they the padding reduces impacts.
NOCSAErecently stated that add-ons to helmets could void certification andwarned It warns against "quick solutions." It says the primary focusshould be limiting "unnecessary" hits and medical handling ofconcussions.
"Equipment changes are probably fourth or fifth onthe list of things that are going to make the biggest difference. Maybeeven further down," says Mike Oliver, NOCSAE executive director.
NOCSAEsets test standards, which involve using sensors to measure impacts ondummy heads inside helmets. Helmet makers do the tests -- Oliver sayseach model needs its own testing and that changes mandate newcertification.
"If you talk to any doctor out there, you're goingto get 14 different opinions on what causes a concussion," Hanson says."We don't know if it's a big hit or if it's a whole bunch of littlehits. ... We can prove scientifically (Guardian Caps) reduce that amountof impact."
But Oliver says the caps are in "a little bit of agray area" according to NOCSAE's position that a helmet addition that"changes or alters the protective system by adding or deletingprotective padding ... or which changes or alters the geometry of theshell or adds mass to the helmet, whether temporary or permanent, voidsthe certification of compliance."
Nonsense, says Haggard: "The waythat thing was written, anything you put on there, whether it be a faceshield or anything like that, falls under that category."
Lastyear, Unequal Technologies of Kennett Square, Pa., introduced helmetpadding "fortified with Kevlar." The padding, with a sticky surface,fitted over existing pads. Unequal still has that product. But this yearit also has padding designed to be fit inside the helmet but notaffixed, the Gyro (at $79.95). There is also a padded skull cap, theDome ($89.95).
Robert Vito, president of Unequal, saysPhiladelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick will use the skull cap,that roughly 100 NFL players use Unequal head padding and about 10,000players at all levels use it. Vito has issues with NOCSAE.
"Toblindly say that anything that goes in, on or around the helmet will nowvoid the certification needs to be recanted," says Vito, who urgesNOCSAE to make sure "we're not leaving a lot of great products on thesideline."
Haggard says linemen at South Carolina with the Guardian Caps in the spring had no concussions.
"Theycould tell the difference in the perceived impact," he says. "Iactually had some of our linebackers and some of our fullbacks come tome and say, 'Hey, I want to try this out, too.' "
At the Juneannual meeting of the National Athletic Trainers' Association,University of North Carolina concussion researcher Kevin Guskiewicz toldattendees said there is no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet. Hesaid while Helmets prevent fractured skulls, he said, but the brain isstill "sloshing around" after a hit.
"So those neurons are stillbeing stretched," Guskiewicz said, "86 billion neurons that we have inthe human brain. ... There are no studies ... to show that in fact thesedevices (extra helmet padding) reduce concussion."
Sensors to monitor hits
Hits happen. Assorted devices are designed to sense them and measure them.
Riddell'sInSite Impact Response System includes a sensor pad in the liner of thehelmet that transmits when certain impact levels are exceeded to ahandheld "alert monitor" on the sideline. Software stores data on playerhistories of exposures to hits. It's priced at $150 per helmet (if youalready have a helmet) and the monitor is free with 12 helmet units($200 if bought separately). The product is an offshoot of Riddellsystems used by college teams and researchers.
X2 Biosystems ofSeattle has the X-Patch, a small, sensor-equipped patch to be wornbehind the neck. It transmits hits data to a mobile device. Now used bycollege athletes in research, it will be sold commercially in 2014, sayscompany co-founder Rich Able.
"Our tools are not going to make adiagnosis," he said. "Our tools are just giving data to the people whoare highly knowledgeable about head injuries."
Reebok's newCheckLight ($150) has an impact sensor in a skull cap. An LED light onthe rear is designed to flash yellow or red (more severe) when impactsmeet hit certain thresholds. It does not transmit data but displays howmany hits occur in practice or a game.
"It's just an extra set ofeyes ... to just pull the athlete off the field as soon as possibleafter a light is triggered to assess the athlete," says Bob Rich, Reebokdirector of advanced concepts.
Chris Nowinski, co-founder ofBoston's Sports Legacy Institute, advocates a "Hit Count" to keep headimpacts, especially in youths, at a minimum: "Simply trying to get feweryellows and reds (with CheckLight) is important."
PatrickKersey, medical director of the USA Football national youthorganization, says sensors are promising but not yet of proven value.
"Alot of the newer products we have out there are very exciting," hesays. "The problem we have in the medical world is that we don't havevalidation that states if they are actually helpful tools -- or are theyneat and flashy tools?"