CHICAGO -- The NFL's top football helmet manufacturer is looking to turn more heads, especially on campuses around the country, with a new model it claims could reduce the risk of concussions.
Riddell Sports' longer, extra-padded helmet doesn't have the on-the-field results to declare it a safer helmet yet. But its appearance in pro training camps and on some college and high school practice fields this summer signals the latest innovative play-calling in a hard-hitting market involving three helmet makers, competing to equip more than 2 million players in the United States.
Manufacturers are giving teams, players and parents more choices and a slightly more streamlined look for a piece of equipment that hasn't changed much in the past two decades.
"One company pushes another - one does something that's innovative and the other one adopts it," said Bill Jarvis, athletic equipment manager at Northwestern University, whose players test gear for Riddell and wear a variety of helmets.
Riddell's Revolution is the first football helmet to be marketed on the claim that it might be able to cut down on concussions - a claim that has the Chicago company's competitors grumbling about hype and lack of evidence.
Its arrival comes on the heels of a new lighter-weight helmet from Adams USA Inc., which bought out the helmets of Bike Athletic Co. Adams says the lightness of its Elite series helmets might reduce the risk of certain injuries because players aren't as inclined to drop their heads when they get tired.
Both approaches may be right for different reasons and different injuries, according to helmet expert and industry consultant Dave Halstead. But he said neither is likely to lessen the most troubling risk in football - catastrophic brain injury.
"I don't think there's a helmet out there that's somehow going to be the panacea," said Halstead, technical adviser to the National Operating Committee for Standards on Athletic Equipment and director of the Sports Biomechanics Impact Research Center at the University of Tennessee. "What football helmets do today is keep you from getting killed."
If Riddell is right, its design could also keep players from getting mild traumatic brain injuries, or concussions, as often - a compelling claim in a sport that causes about 100,000 concussions a year, 40 percent of them at the high school level.
The Revolution is its response to research funded by the NFL that found seven of 10 on-field concussions were caused by hits to the side of the head.
The helmet has more interior padding and a shell that extends forward to the jaw to increase the area of protection. The back protrudes to offer better padding. The facemasks have been redesigned and teardrop-shaped holes on the top provide more ventilation.
"I'm glad to see that they are making advancements because nobody has made a change in the helmet in 20-something years," NFL Players Union executive director Gene Upshaw told NFL.com.
Riddell said about 40,000 of the new helmets will be in use this fall, worn most visibly by as many as a quarter of NFL players and some players on all top college teams. But while the NFL may be its biggest showcase, with a majority of the 2,000 players wearing Riddells of one model or another, the $100 million-a-year company is looking to more lucrative playing fields: those of the nation's 15,000 high schools.
"The product we developed was really focused on getting to the masses," said Bill Sherman, president and chief executive of the company that makes 300,000 helmets annually and other gear. "We want every player in the NFL wearing the Revolution helmet, but when we introduce a new product we have to look at our core market and that's a million high school players."
The new helmets sell for about $150 - at least $30 more than Riddell's standard model.
Garry McNab of Adams USA, the No. 3 helmet maker, says the warning label on Riddell's new helmet speaks louder than any sales pitch. It reads: "No helmet can prevent serious head or neck injuries a player might receive while participating in football."
"I can't say that one helmet's any better than the other, and I don't think anybody else can say that," said McNab, secretary-treasurer of the Cookeville, Tenn.-based company.
Riddell's closest rival, Litchfield, Ill.-based Schutt Sports, hasn't changed its basic helmet shape in 15 years, and president Julie Nimmons suggested her competitors' new looks might be a gimmick. Schutt recently released a new, lighter helmet, the Air Advantage, with slightly different features and is field-testing a prototype with more padding.
"Football is a game of very, very hard collisions, and I don't think there's a manufacturer out there that isn't concerned about what happens on the field," Nimmons said. "However, there's only so much any of us can do" about trying to minimize injuries.
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