Light helmet design’s effectiveness pits company versus NFL, NFLPA and their testing

The Athletic

March 23, 2023

Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising took a hard sack in this year’s Rose Bowl, causing his head to
snap back against the turf. It was similar to the hit he endured in the same bowl a year earlier and a play seen across football, most notably this past season with the Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa, who suffered multiple concussions.

Unlike the 2022 game, when Rising lay prone for several moments before wobbling off the field with a
concussion, he popped back up this year. He credited a new, lighter helmet for the different outcomes.
“And it felt … like a pretty good hit, and it was no pop, no issue whatsoever,”Rising said.“My neck was
able to brace for it more. And I think that definitely did take some load off of that impact.”
Rising’s neck could control his head better, he contended, because of the lighter helmet, which is at the
heart of an increasingly tense dispute between the company that makes the headwear and the NFL and
NFLPA. Rising’s experience aside, the league and the players’ union will not allow the headwear
manufactured by Light Helmets onto their fields because the equipment does not pass the
biomechanical tests run by the league’s advisors.

Every NFL locker room is adorned with a poster detailing the NFL-eligible helmets with rankings. Light’s
competitors Riddell, Schutt, Xenith and Vicis, all with heavier helmets, are on the poster.
After declining for several years and despite a nearly decade-long initiative to improve helmet safety
through grants and allowing players to wear only the highly rated head coverings, concussions rose 18
percent this past season, according to the NFL. Whether Light Helmets is part of a solution is far from
clear, but its battles with the league and union underscore how the test and its apparent bias for heavier
weight influence what players can and cannot wear.

“The reason that the helmets are where they are — and they are on the heavy side — is because they’ve
gotten bigger over the last five years to test better,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, medical director and director
of clinical research of the eponymously named Concussion Center at Emerson Hospital in Concord,
Mass.“ Since the National Football League put in place testing of helmets using a linear impact — they hit the helmet and then record from a head form inside the helmet … it’s been known that, ‘Gee, if you
make it thicker, it tests better.’”

A well-regarded helmet lab at Virginia Tech ranks Light’s S2 helmet eighth out of 28 and another model
18th, but the system used there is very different than the NFL’s.
“It involves multiple impacts and weighing different impacts differently,” Cantu said of Virginia Tech’s
system. “You can think of the NFL as designed around a single hard impact, whereas the Virginia Tech
star system is trying to do a rating on a helmet that would have the overwhelming majority of hits to the
head that aren’t that hard.”

There are about 10,000 Light helmets in the market according to the company, a sliver of the total
helmet business. Aside from Rising, its helmets are largely worn by youth teams where the worries
about NFL-sized hits are not relevant. The helmet shell is made from Kevlar, which is used in the military,
aviation and auto racing, compared to the polycarbonate used by Light’s competitors.
Rising has a Name, Image and Likeness deal with Light, a point that the University of Utah athletic
department officials raised concerns over before Nick Esayian, CEO of Light Helmets, said he convinced
them of the product’s safety. Kelly Sharitt, executive director of equipment operations at Utah, and Jeff
Rudy, Utah’s associate athletics director for football administration, did not reply to requests for

Rising’s teammate, offensive tackle Braeden Daniels, wears a Light Helmet without a NIL deal, while
Coastal Carolina and Clemson are trying out the helmets this spring, Esayian said. The CEO said he’s so
sure about this product that his son plays high school football in the company’s headwear, but the
absence of the NFL’s seal of approval is a major hurdle.

“The military has found out, auto racing has found out, motorcycle racing, that weight’s the enemy in
these impacts,”Esayian claimed.“ Because when you have a 30-G, or a 40-G collision with another
player, or in an accident, the two-pound difference between a traditional helmet and, let’s say, our
helmet now becomes 60 pounds or 80 pounds that your cervical structure is managing.”
The weight difference between a Light helmet and the ones worn on an NFL field is between one and
three pounds, with Light’s S2 model weighing in at 3.5 pounds. To skeptics, the Light helmet is simply
not sturdy enough to withstand the worst an NFL player can mete out — would you rather be in an SUV
or a compact car in a crash?

Helmets were originally designed to prevent skull fractures, not concussions, so the thicker and denser
the better. Great strides were made in the last decade to adjust helmet technology as awareness of
brain injuries surged in the wake of Congressional hearings, reporting and class action lawsuits.
Joel Stitzel, a professor of biomedical engineering at Wake Forest University, is largely agnostic on the
light-versus-heavy question. He said most helmet models do a good job of preventing traumatic brain
injury, but whether they reduce concussions remains uncertain. “The difficulty with helmet design, as you know, is our relatively poor understanding of precisely what causes a concussion,” Stitzel said. “It’s the biomechanics of concussion as much as everybody studies it, it’s still pretty difficult to really predict. … So I can’t say it’s better to be lighter. I can’t say it’s worse to be lighter. I can only say that if you had everything else the same, which is never the case,I think that a little bit more mass is probably a little better.”

Dave Marver, the former CEO of Vicis helmets, argued more mass is better because it helps prevent
rotational injuries where the head sharply turns inside the helmet, causing the brain to slam against the

“Heavier helmets are more stable during impacts, particularly when measuring rotational forces,” he
wrote in an email. “This is why Light Helmets have traditionally performed relatively poorly in NFL
testing and other scoring methods that consider rotational acceleration. The best helmet is likely one
that is heavy enough to protect against rotational forces while light enough to mitigate concerns about
potential neck injury.”

Light Helmets was founded as SG in 2012 by auto racing figures Bill Simpson and Chip Ganassi, who
sought to transfer the move to lighter helmets in their sport to the gridiron. At its peak, SG had 20,000
helmets in the market.

In 2015, in the wake of the concussion litigation settlement, the NFL and NFLPA contracted with private
biomechanical laboratories Biocore and Biokinetics to create and execute an impact test for helmets.
The league then began ranking helmets, and lower-rated ones were soon disallowed. Receiver Antonio
Brown famously created a stir in 2019 over not being able to use his old helmet.
SG’s helmets rated poorly, and frustrated, Simpson sold the company in 2018 to Esayian, a former race
car driver. And while the NFL market is small in terms of the number of helmets sold, for a manufacturer
not to be able to market that its product is worn on the league’s fields hurts its prospects.
“Bill’s comment was, ‘You know, Nick, they run this test in a lab, the head form is just attached to a
bench, and they put a helmet on it, and they shoot a pneumatic ram at it. And it’s just sitting there,’”
Esayian said, “In football, that’s not how somebody gets hit. You’re always running or moving, your brain
is moving, at 20 miles an hour, and then you’re getting hit from a different direction.”
Stephen Duma runs the Virginia Tech helmet laboratory, and while he acknowledged that heavier
helmets tend to perform better in testing, he said player preference should be taken into account. “The
biggest advantage of the Light Helmet is the players would really like it,” Duma said. “It would feel
better, it feels lighter … players will be extremely receptive to it. And it performs really, really well. It’s a
good helmet.”

There is a growing consensus that lighter is better is youth football. The National Operating Committee
on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) recently issued a proposal that youth helmets weigh only
3.5 pounds, a threshold that the traditional helmet makers don’t yet meet. The thinking with the shift is
that a typical youth player’s head is smaller, so a heavy helmet puts strain on their neck, said Mike
Oliver, NOCSAE’s executive director, who called it the bobblehead effect.
“If a kid gets hit, the heads are going to wobble around because the neck can’t manage the inertia of a
heavy helmet,” Oliver said.

Jordan Palmer, a former NFL player and quarterback coach, sits on Light’s board of directors and is
working to spread the company’s gospel to his youth camps. He said he expects 12 universities to try out
the Light helmets this spring.
“The common question is, ‘Well, is it as safe if it’s this light?’” Palmer said. “The only reason that you
even ask that question is you’re so used to helmets being heavy, you would assume that they need to be
heavy. …This is going to reshape the way people think about helmet safety in general.”

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