What’s the difference?
“In a car crash, you stop in a matter of feet. In an NFL impact, you stop in inches,” one expert tells me.
In the eyes of physics, a big hit on the field can be just as devastating as a car crash–or in many cases, worse. We’re expecting a mere 1.5 inches of foam and candy shell to decelerate a player’s head gently enough to prevent their brain from bouncing around inside their skull and causing poorly understood, but permanent and devastating injury. After talking to some of the brightest minds in helmet design, helmet testing and football physics, the elephant in the room became clear: A concussion-proof helmet is a pipe dream. If the NFL wants concussion-free football, they’ll need to redesign football.
That said, conditions have never been riper for disruptive technologies to increase player safety. And for the first time in football’s 200+ year history, we’re finally developing the methodology to separate our best helmets from the decorative chunks of plastic.
Just two years ago, a team led by Dr. Stefan Duma from Virginia Tech released the first ever five-star crash rating for football helmets (PDF). It’s one reason that Duma likens the NFL of today to the auto industry in the 1970s. Originally, all cars were rated by a basic pass/fail crash test, and it wasn’t until Congress passed legislature for a five-star crash rating system that car companies had the impetus to do better.
Mark Wilson is a writer who started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day. His work has also appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach.