June 28, 2023
Football’s concussion crisis has been part of the NFL for almost two decades. But the pros aren’t the only ones reevaluating their relationship with the game. Now, studies are finding that parents of younger children are increasingly concerned about the long-term impacts of playing football.
Concussions are a result of a forceful blow to the head. According to the Centers for Disease Control, medical providers often describe a concussion as a “mild” brain injury. While the effects of one concussion are rarely a cause for long-term concern, multiple concussions over a period of years can have traumatic consequences.
In a 2012 public opinion survey conducted by ESPN, 41% of parents reported a fear of concussions made them less likely to allow their children to get on the gridiron.
An Aspen Institute report recently found that participation in tackle football declined by 18% among children between 6 and 12 between 2020 and 2021.
Researching youth football risks is an ongoing effort, and there are continual disagreements over the severity of risks. Some researchers have concluded football is a dangerous sport no matter the age, while others are finding evidence that some children may be predisposed to more severe health consequences.
Meanwhile, a company is suggesting they’ve found a potential stopgap for avoiding major head injuries during football.
The Guardian Cap produced by Guardian Sports touts its use can reduce the impact of a hit and therefore decrease the potential for concussions.
WHAT’S A GUARDIAN CAP?
Guardian Caps are padded protection coverings that go over the top of a football helmet. According to the NFL, Guardian Caps reduce a collision’s impact by at least 10% when one player is wearing the gear. Guardian Sports suggests high school football players could see an impact reduction up to 33%.
According to Guardian Sports’ website: “we treat the caps like it’s a part of players’ everyday equipment and it’s mandatory to wear.”
Makes them sound like a must-have, right? But the costs and lack of long-term research mean getting them on players’ helmets is a challenge for high school teams.
A USEFUL TOOL OR POTENTIAL HINDRANCE?
According to Guardian Sports, more than 2,000 high schools nationwide use Guardian Caps.
An independent study conducted by Winthrop University shows youth football personnel reported a 40.5% decrease in concussions per year after transitioning to Guardian Caps, but 16.2% of participants in the study said they don’t recommend them. Issues reported include the expense and product malfunctions.
HOW MUCH ARE THEY, ANYWAY?
Guardian Caps are a helmet addition, not a replacement, and each one costs $65. That’s an easy price to pay for schools in districts flush with cash or for children whose parents have expendable income. Not so much for a 50-member team in a poorly funded school district.
Central High School in Tuscaloosa has looked at getting Guardian Caps onto players’ heads, said former head football coach Rodney Bivens.
“It’s something that we have at the top of our list, which we’re actively raising funds for player safety,” said Bivens, who left Central in October and is now head coach at Huffman High School in Birmingham.
For a 50-person roster, outfitting everyone with a Guardian Cap would cost $3,250. Unlike football helmets, the caps must be replaced yearly.
“Whatever equipment purchases you make, especially on a high school budget, you need to have the research to back that purchase,” said Central High School athletic trainer Rodney Brown.
Guardian Caps have been on the market since 2016, but players, coaches and trainers still have questions about their protection promises.
In an interview with NBC Sports, Detroit Lions Head Coach Dan Campbell said, “You say you’re doing it to protect us, but the minute we take them off, we’re going to be so used to hitting with them, that when you hit without it, it’s going to feel a lot different.”
University of Alabama Assistant Professor and Athletic Trainer Jessica Wallace said she believes Guardian Caps are “absolutely not” decreasing the rate of concussions. In fact, that extra padding could be dangerous in its own right.
“When you look at the true definition of a concussion, a concussion is a shaking of the brain. Extra padding on the helmet has nothing to do with the biomechanics of the skull,” Wallace said.
A Guardian Cap weighs less than half a pound. Wallace said she thinks that padding does more harm than good in a violent sport like football, and it could increase the risk of long term brain damage.
Concussion Legacy Foundation Education Programs Manager Brandon Boyd is concerned, too.
“You’re making the helmet bigger and a far bigger surface area for athletes to have,” Boyd said. “You could be adding more hits to the head over time, which we know is the driving force behind (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).”
CTE is a progressive brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head. According to the New York Times, the disease has been found in the brains of more than 320 former NFL players.
Guardian Sports National Sales Manager Tony Plagman said the company is using research and data to drive its innovations.
“We get great feedback every day from coaches that say ‘hey, we feel like this equipment is helping our athletes,’ ” Plagman said. “That’s why we keep plugging along.”
The company hasn’t gotten any direct negative feedback from partnering schools, he said.
“We wouldn’t be a product if we made things worse. We only hear negative comments from those who haven’t given the product a chance,” Plagman said.
FUNDAMENTAL CHANGES IN YOUTH FOOTBALL
While the Guardian Cap budget gets closer to being fulfilled, Central High School coaches and players are focusing on basic fundamentals so players stay safe.
Most concussions happen during practice, so using best practices there means fewer injuries, said Central High Assistant Athletic Director Dennis Conner.
“We had to go through a whole class with the Alabama High School Athletic Association on concussions,” Connor said. “We learned proper ways to teach tackling for our athletes.”
Before the early 2000s, players were taught to tackle with the crown of their helmet. Now, coaches put the focus on other techniques.
With rule changes, equipment modifications and the use of technology, who knows what football will look like years from now? There’s a fine line skirting between ensuring players stay safe and fans keep coming back.
If fans wanted to watch a non-contact sport, they’d watch baseball. So where should decision makers draw that line?
“As far as football, the way it should be, I think that’s a perspective question,” Bivens said. “I think safety is the first thing we need to ensure for all athletes.”
Football wouldn’t be football if nobody got sacked, obviously, but rule changes are indeed making the game itself a little safer.
One newer rule, targeting, restricts players from making direct head-to-head contact with the crown of the helmet. Found guilty of targeting? You’re out of the game.
“I know at one point they were thinking about taking out kickoffs, and I think that loses an aspect of the game,” said former Samford University wide receiver Wen Burnette. Players and parents alike must decide whether the risks are worth the gains from the sport.
“At some point, there’s a realized risk when playing a sport. If you’re going to play football, there’s a risk of getting hit in the head,” Burnette said.
According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, the Metropolitan Independent Football League, which includes 11 New York City area independent schools, unanimously voted to eliminate kickoff rules. The kickoff ban is the first by a high school sports league in the country.
However, according to a five-year study conducted by JAMA Neurology, 72% of concussions and 67% of head impact exposures occurred in practice, not game play.
GUARDIAN CAPS AND THE FUTURE OF FOOTBALL
Guardian Sports wants its product worn in games, not just at practice.
Currently, no programs at any level are doing so. Several players, parents and coaches wonder how Guardian Caps can protect players in games if they’re only used in practices.
Michigan State Sports Concussion Researcher Aaron Zynda believes there needs to be test trials of Guardian Caps being worn in games.
“The short time window they’ve been used where they’ve seen effectiveness and the certain number of positions, it’s still not really clear how the Guardian Cap endures repetitive impacts in every game,” Zynda said.
According to Zynda, NFL teams used Guardian Caps in short spurts during pre season games. In addition, only players who absorb the most amount of contact would wear them. These factors contribute to questions surrounding their long term impact in game settings across an entire season.
Alabama Sports Concussion Taskforce Chairman Dr. Joe Ackerson is impressed with the Guardian Caps but thinks the lack of studies are putting its efforts in jeopardy.
“I think the efforts of the Guardian Caps are great for the future. But we just haven’t seen enough literature at this time to promise that,” Dr. Rodney Brown said. “It goes back to whether or not they truly make a difference, and I think that is yet to be seen.”
For now, although advancements of equipment like the Guardian Cap are promising to parents and coaches of high school football players, skepticism will remain without more significant research.