How the NFL and Equipment Manufacturers Will Make Money off Concussions

Great read from Sean Conboy on Deadspin about the hypocrisy of the NFL and equipment manufacturers when it comes to concussions. The argument goes like this: the league and manufacturers ignore science and forge ahead with heavier, harder helmets, despite evidence to the contrary – that softer is probably better – all in the name of saving face and making money.

In the screed, Conboy details a conversation he had with Don Vito, the CEO of Philly-based Unequal, one of the leading manufacturers of after-market skull-protecting gear, and his subsequent research on Vito’s claims:

According to Unequal CEO Rob Vito, the company was allowed to go in to the Steelers facility and install the padding after multiple conversations with NFL lawyers. The lawyers eventually decided that the players had the right to modify the helmets, so long as the players accepted that the helmet manufacturer’s warranty against a skull-fracture was null and void.

Dr. Henry Feuer, a member of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, confirmed to me that the league had not conducted any independent tests on the effects of Kevlar helmets.

Stunned, I called biomedical engineering expert Richard M. Greenwald at Dartmouth University and asked him what he thought of Kevlar helmets. He hadn’t.

“You’re telling me that NFL players are installing Kevlar inside their helmets?” he said, dryly apoplectic.

I was.

“These guys are changing the fundamental nature of the helmet. Does Riddell know about this? You gotta talk to someone over there.”

I had tried for weeks. They stonewalled with hilariously PR-ish e-mails about their engineers being “so swamped.”

“Why would anyone … do that?”

That’s what I had called Greenwald to find out.

“I can’t think of a single reason why installing Kevlar would protect the brain in a collision,” he said. “It’s the egg-yolk-inside-the-shell analogy. Making the shell stronger will still scramble the yolk.”

Conboy goes on to argue that the many business interests to design a “safer” helmet outweigh the interests to design a, well, safer helmet.

Unequal works with Michael Vick and they have previously custom-fitted him with both extra rib and head protection. But Vick apparently wasn’t wearing Unequal’s Ex Armor when he broke his ribs in 2011. When asked about the incident in a phone conversation last summer, Vito told me, in no uncertain terms, that he was unhappy that Vick had broken his agreement with the company by wearing Nike (he was sure to say “Nike”) undershirts, and not Unequal. His anger was understandable, since his company sponsors Vick and supplied him with equipment that may have prevented his injury, but it also provided a glimpse into how cut-throat and grimy the equipment business can be. Hell, Vito even once let Ed Werder hit him with a shovel on national TV to prove his product’s worth. And then it was Werder who, last year, used Vito as a source for at least one story. The point is: it can be hard to separate the science from the hype, and the media is all too willing to play along with the latter.

Conboy laid out those claims quite well in his piece, which you can read here.

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4 Responses

  1. Get rid of helmets and pads. There you go. Problem solved. No more human-missiles. Players will actually have to learn how to tackle.

    1. I’m all for that. The more manufacturers bulk up their equipment to the point where players are armored like Iron Man, the more likely they’ll hurl themselves at each other with reckless abandon, and voila, more concussion injuries.

  2. Wait, is the guy’s name Rob Vito or DON VITO?!

    That might be one of the funniest typos I’ve ever seen, if in fact it is.

  3. I wanted to thank you for this great read!!
    I certainly enjoyed every little bit of it. I have you book-marked to check out new things you post…

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