October 15, 2010
For Edmonton Eskimos' guard Patrick Kabongo (pictured, right), concussions are a danger that's always in his mind.
"I get a lot of hits to my head," he said. "It's playing in the trenches."
There are plenty of injuries to worry about in football, but concussions might be the most frightening. More and more research keeps suggesting that their effects can last long after a career ends and cause severe mental problems as well as physical ones. There's still a lot we don't know about head injuries, but the information out there and the tales from fellow players are enough to make players like Kabongo wary of their potential long-term effects. He said he hasn't experienced a recorded concussion himself, but he's heard plenty of horror stories.
"My friend played for the Kansas City Chiefs, but he had to quit because of blackouts," Kabongo said. "You want to be safe after football. Don't worry about the careers, it's the life after."
One step Kabongo's taken to try and reduce his risk of concussions is switching helmets. He's wearing a relatively new Xenith helmet, which Dave Naylor explored in an excellent Globe and Mail feature earlier this week. Massachusetts-based Xenith developed the technology with assistance from University of Ottawa researchers. Its key selling point is that it's lined with air-filled polyurethane shock absorbers, which compress differently to provide cushion for differing types of hits.
Xenith helmets are worn by several NFL players, including Jeff Saturday of the Indianapolis Colts and Matt Birk of the Baltimore Ravens, and they're catching on in Canada, too. Some players at the University of Ottawa and Simon Fraser University have switched to them, as well as some high school athletes.
Kabongo, a 6'6'' 315-pound non-import guard out of the University of Nebraska, said he adopted the Xenith helmet a few years ago and has been pleased with the results.
"I've been wearing that one for about three years now," he said. "I really like it."
He said another advantage the Xenith helmet provides is that its size doesn't change with temperature. That can be extremely useful in the CFL, where temperatures can vary drastically between July games in Toronto and November games in Edmonton.
"Other helmets can contract or expand in the heat or cold," Kabongo said. "With this helmet, it's always the same size."
Kabongo said it's particularly important for CFL players to consider the dangers of head injuries these days. He's in his seventh year in the CFL, and he said the league's changed dramatically over his career. According to him, the increase in players' size and athleticism has made the hits harder than ever.
"The players are faster, the players are stronger," he said. "It's a contact sport; you wear a helmet for a reason. You want to have a helmet that will protect you."
He said it's not just CFL players that need to take head injuries seriously, though, as there's plenty of hard hits at all levels of football.
"For the kids, it's really important," he said. "You want everyone to go out there and be safe."
One of the most interesting parts of Naylor's piece talked about how these helmets have been slow to catch on in professional football. "Certified for play in 2007, about 40,000 Xenith helmets have been sold but only a handful of players in the CFL and NFL wear them, as both leagues have deals with Riddell, a traditional helmet manufacturer," he wrote. I spoke to him about that, and he mentioned that those deals don't prevent anyone from picking a helmet of their choice, as long as it's certified, but rather offer incentives to teams and the league based on how many players wear the preferred brand.
"The helmets are certified for use," he said. "Once a helmet is certified, anyone can use it."
Naylor said even if enough players switched to different helmets that the league didn't meet Riddell's incentive levels, it would be unlikely the CFL or teams would intervene.
"I would think, given the sensitivity of the issue of concussions, the league wouldn't want to be portrayed that way," he said.
Jamie Dykstra, the CFL's director of communications, said by e-mail that the deal doesn't prevent players from choosing any helmet.
"CFL players can use or request the type of helmet of their choice - whether that's Riddell or another brand," he said. "There is no minimum number of players that must wear Riddell helmets. The Riddell deal is structured in a way that provides each team with some benefits if they use a certain number of Riddell helmets. Some of these benefits include savings on other Riddell equipment and helmets, including the Revolution IQ helmet."
Thus, any CFL player could switch to a Xenith design (the X1 is pictured at right) or any other helmet if they wanted. Like most new technologies, though, reactions to the Xenith models have not been uniformly positive. I spoke to Ben Matchett, the University of Calgary's sports information director, about their football team's experience with the Xenith helmets. He said via e-mail that their players weren't as sold on them as Kabongo is.
"We have eight Xenith helmets, I believe," Matchett said. "They were mostly worn last season - (star quarterback) Erik Glavic actually wore one last year. Anecdotally, players disliked the fit as they sat quite a ways back in the helmet. Glavic and most others who wore them last year moved back to the Riddell Speed this year."
It's also worth noting that this isn't a simple case of "Xenith helmets good, Riddell helmets bad". Riddell has also done plenty of work on reducing concussions, and their Revolution helmet in particular has shown promising results. A study involving their impact-monitoring systems also produced some of the most interesting data on concussions to date; namely, that large numbers of sub-concussive hits in practice may be as much of a threat to players' health as a big hit or two in a game. Every helmet manufacturer has a substantial interest in reducing concussions, and many of them, including Riddell, are making impressive progress.
In my mind, the takeaways from this are twofold. First, it's notable that many advanced helmet models, including the Xenith and the Revolution, appear to be more effective at reducing head injuries than traditional designs. Second, not all helmets will necessarily appeal to all players; Kabongo loves the Xenith, but the University of Calgary players were less impressed with it.
There's plenty of room for further innovation in the field of helmet design, and there's a plethora of advanced helmets out there already. It might be worthwhile for CFL players to do their own research and pick an advanced helmet that works for them instead of a traditional model. Helmets aren't just any old piece of equipment; they might be the key to preserving football players' long-term health, and that makes it imperative for players to learn about the different helmets out there and choose the one that's right for them.