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Ken Reed on football concussionsHelmet makers, along with some coaches, athletic directors and youth sports administrators would like you to believe that there are football helmets available that will greatly reduce the risk of brain trauma and concussions.

To put it nicely, they’re misleading you. The reality is there’s very little a helmet can do to prevent brain trauma and concussions.

The reason for that is the brain is like Jell-O bouncing up against the walls of the skull after a blow to the head. It’s the whiplash effect that leads to concussions, not necessarily strikes to the head. That’s why players can receive concussions without even being hit in the head. A blow to the chest can send the brain splashing against the skull with almost as much force as a head-to-head shot.

There simply isn’t a way to design a helmet that will prevent the brain from bouncing up against the walls of the skull after contact. Helmets are great for preventing skull fractures but not concussions.

Nevertheless, players from the pro ranks to youth football leagues have been led to believe that if they wear a certain type of helmet, they can be protected from brain injuries.

The Denver Broncos’ Su’a Cravens is one of those. Cravens sat out the last National Football League season due to health and personal issues related to concussions.

But the Broncos signed the 6-foot-1, 221-pound safety in the offseason and have outfitted him with a high-tech helmet, the VICIS Zero1. The helmet is designed to combat the potential for brain injury.

“They got me wearing this big old helmet,” said Craven. “It’s comfortable. You can see and there is a lot of cushion in it.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough cushion in the world to prevent the Jell-O effect on the brain following a collision.

The reality is that there simply isn’t a magical football helmet out there that protects the brain – and likely never will be. Nobody has figured out how to put a helmet on the brain, inside of the skull, in order to reduce concussion risk and long-term brain damage from the Jell-O effect.

Nevertheless, football coaches regularly tell the parents of youth, high school and college players that the new helmet technology their teams utilize significantly reduces the risk of short and long-term brain damage.

“The feeling used to be that if you just make the helmets better, things would be okay,” said sportswriter Frank Deford when talking about the huge problem that is brain trauma in football. “But you can’t make the helmets better. The helmet doesn’t protect the brain, it protects the skull. The reality is, the more efficient you make the helmets, the more dangerous they become for the people wearing them.”

Other than not playing the game, the only thing that will significantly reduce brain trauma and concussions is greatly reducing the number of full-contact practices and scrimmages during the season. That’s exactly what the Ivy League did. The Canadian Football League recently followed suit.

The appropriate action for youth, high school and college football is clear and simple: Ban all full-contact practices once the season starts and stringently limit full-contact practices in the off-season and preseason.

It’s not just concussions we’re concerned about today. Repetitive sub-concussive hits to the head may cause as much damage as concussion-causing hits. Purdue University researchers have compared changes in the brains of high school football players who had suffered concussions with the brains of high school football players who were concussion free and found brain tissue damage in both. That’s scary stuff. That means brain injuries are occurring without players, coaches or parents being aware of it.

The mound of research pinpointing the dangers to the brain from playing football continues to grow. It’s becoming increasingly clear that football is too dangerous for the human brain. It’s hazardous to one’s health.

After his latest brain injury, a doctor told Cravens “I don’t think you’re going to be able to play anymore.”

“At that point it was, ‘I’ve got to get healthy and make sure I’m good and I have a long life to live,’” said Cravens.

But Cravens has decided to play again, in part because he’s been told that a high-tech “big old helmet” will significantly reduce his risk of another brain injury.

It’s sad – in fact, it’s a shame, that people of influence in Cravens’ life, including those in the Denver Broncos organization, have given Cravens a false sense of hope and security because of a new helmet.

Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project.  He is the author of Ego vs. Soul in Sports and How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Contact him at ken.reed@leagueoffans.org or on Twitter at @KenReedLofF

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