This Helmet Will Save Football. Actually, Probably Not.

The New York Times

By Michael Powell 

Dec. 12, 2019

At Stanford, David Camarillo chases the dream of a helmet that can prevent brain disease related to playing football. It’s filled with water. Really. Brain experts say he’s wasting his time.

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Walk between a colonnade of palm trees and push through a door at Stanford University and find a sorcerer’s apprentice lab where prospective Ph.D. sorts beaver away at bioengineering programs.

This is CamLab, where David Camarillo, a nationally respected bioengineer and former college football tight end, and his students are in pursuit of that American El Dorado: They seek a helmet that will make it safe to play tackle football.

Dr. Camarillo, 40, insisted they could soon crack the case. He tapped at his keyboard and on the screen, watched a simulation of his new helmet shock absorber, and whispered: “This could reduce concussions by at least 75 percent. Theoretically, this is the holy grail.” That might be an unintentionally apt metaphor. No one, after all, has found Jesus’ chalice. After years of research, only a few scientists believe they can still make such a helmet. Many who study this field say a more sophisticated helmet may even prove dangerous.

“My fear is that a better helmet will give false reassurance,” said Dr. Lee Goldstein, a psychiatrist and researcher with the C.T.E. Center at Boston University, which has carried out pioneering research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated hits to the head. “It’s like developing a better cigarette filter. It’s smoother and it might not give you a hacking cough. But you still get lung cancer.”

These are strange and contentious times for football. It remains America’s most popular sport. The National Football League remains a mint, pumping out revenues that have reached $15 billion annually. At the same time, youth and high school football participation has fallen steadily, driven, in part, by broad parental concern about the brutal damage wreaked by hits that shake and rattle the gray mass of mystery that is the human brain.

 Their worry is based in fact. When a 310-pound man who runs a 40-yard dash in five seconds flat slams into a running back, that runner’s neck and head accelerate, and the brain and its fibers twist and stretch and tear. A particularly rough hit could jar open the blood-brain barrier, the semipermeable wall that prevents bacterial pathogens from entering the brain.

The danger isn’t limited to the largest and fastest people. In fact, smaller repeated hits — as opposed to spectacular collisions — are the real danger. Football, brain experts say, can represent imminent danger to the brain of a child, a teenager or an adult. No advance in helmet making, they say, is likely to materially change that.

Willy Moss, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, has worked with Dr. Goldstein and the Department of Defense, seeking to develop better helmets for players in contact sports and soldiers in war zones. He has alsoconsulted with Dr. Camarillo.

He is open to a breakthrough in helmet technology, though a thin smile spoke to profound doubt.

“You can make whatever changes you want, but in the end it’s all physics,” he said. “Talking of new and better buffers is like Goldilocks and the three foams.”

Stefan Duma, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech, runs a respected helmet lab that evaluates and rates them, and he has tracked the breadth of the technological leap. More sophisticated helmets and foams have reduced the acceleration of the head by about 50 percent, and all of the companies, he said, are engaged in research to develop new technologies. But he is not convinced that great advances remain. C.T.E. remains an ever-present danger no matter what a player wears on his head. “Not getting hit in the head at all is the best thing for you,” he said.

“The top five or six pro helmets are interchangeable, well designed and perform well,” he added. “But we have to be clear: This is about risk reduction.”

So the argument is joined, and there’s no doubting the stakes. The N.F.L. recognizes the threat to its future and has shoveled money into helmet and concussion research as fast as a stoker tosses coal into a furnace. It has spent $200 million, and counting, in the past decade, and the Department of Defense has poured in tens of millions of dollars of its own, hoping to find better protection for soldiers. In mid-November, the N.F.L. announced a $2 million grant competition to create a new “top performing helmet.”

Taken on its own, the $140 million football helmet business is dominated by a half-dozen companies and offers a poor profit center, as the market is small and heavily weighted down with insurance liability costs. Dr. Camarillo has applied for a piece of that N.F.L. bounty and has yet to receive money. He is principally underwritten by a grant from Stanford’s Children’s Hospital.

“My goal is not to be a consultant to football,” he said. “Really traumatic brain injury is a much bigger issue.”

And he is convinced that a better helmet can help solve it.

 


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