NFL players suffered 31.6% more concussions last year than they did in 2014, according to new data released this month. As the New York Times points out, it's possible that the higher numbers simply mean that more concussions were diagnosed last year, not that there were more concussions, but it is an alarming stat nonetheless.
The league knows it has a problem with head injuries. And even if the problem is not new, the league recognizes that fans are more aware of the issue than ever before, thanks to high-profile books, increased media interest, and a big-budget biopic, "Concussion," starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the disease found in the brains of many deceased former football players.
A new, safer helmet won't be an instant solution to the crisis, but it is a start. The ZERO1 helmet, co-developed by the University of Washington and Seattle-based startup VICIS, has been in the works for more than two years. Now it's ready to show off; VICIS is pulling off the camouflage tape it covered the helmet in for months at public events, and CEO Dave Marver is bringing it around to different college and pro football programs across the country.
Marver tells Yahoo Finance that several NFL programs, plus 10 of the top 20 Division I college football teams, have committed to test the helmets this spring at practice, and that VICIS expects to see the helmet on the NFL field come fall. The NFL does not select a single helmet each season and require players to wear it; rather, the players choose their helmet, and this is one of the dangers: a running back might go for a lighter helmet over one that is safer, but heavier. (The NFL declined to comment on which particular helmet its players choose to wear.)
VICIS (the company name is Latin for "change") named its helmet the ZERO1, Marver says, as a reference to the company's goals: "zero compromises, zero defects, zero excuses." The helmet contains multiple layers of different material inside to slow acceleration. The front of the helmet crumples a little bit on impact, like a car bumper, which you might think would be a problem, but in fact may be more effective at protecting the skull than more basic helmets that seek to deflect a hit with a hard outer shell.
"Existing helmets haven't changed much since the 1970s," Marver says. "They have a very hard outer shell, and they're designed to protect against skull fracture... they don't do a great job at reducing impact forces, and that's what most people think causes brain injury."
VICIS warns that its helmet can't prevent a concussion from happening. But it can lessen the impact of a hard hit. "We're just hopeful it can reduce risk of concussion and make the sport safer," Marver says. "But ultimately, it's going to take a multifaceted approach: rule changes, increased vigilance, and better equipment."
As far as better equipment goes, the NFL, along with General Electric (GE) and Under Armour (UA), launched the Head Health Challenge in 2013 as part of the NFL and GE’s broader Head Health Initiative. All three of them invested $20 million in a fund to award grants to head-injury solutions. The University of Washington was among three final winners of the Head Health Challenge II, along with the U.S. Army (which developed a strap that would connect a player's helmet to his chest to keep the head from jerking back on impact) and Viconic, a Dearborn, Mich., company that makes an underlay for artificial turf to soften impact when a player lands on the ground. University of Washington received $750,000 in total funding from the challenge to work on the helmet.
The helmet is the most consumer-facing of these three winning products—the one that is easiest for football fans to understand and get excited about. It'll be ready for players to wear by next season, but whether players will choose to wear it is a different question. As Marver acknowledges, "The athletic trainer, equipment manager, and the player himself all care about different things."
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.