A lot of attention has been paid to head injuries in the NFL the past few years, with sweeping changes being made ahead of the 2018 season. Those changes completely altered the acceptable types of headgear and led to more than one controversy, including at least one that continues to today.
Antonio Brown, an All-Pro wide receiver now with the New England Patriots, was willing to sit on the bench instead of play if he isn’t allowed to wear the same helmet he has used since he entered the league in 2010.
The NFL wants to, once again, make changes to the helmets that are used and is looking for new input. It has launched an initiative that sees $3 million ready to be doled out if someone thinks they have the perfect head-protecting helmet.
The NFL Helmet Challenge wants to innovate headgear and reduce the risk of head injuries on the field. There has been a growing number of players being diagnosed posthumously with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), and the NFL wants to do whatever it can to turn things around. It will give a grant worth $2 million to support the manufacturing of a new helmet, as well as a cash award of $1 million.
The challenge will run until May 2021, unless someone comes up with an unbeatable solution sooner. Applicants will need to submit their prototypes for testing in accordance with NFL guidelines that are established to mimic concussive impacts on the field.
The NFL’s Executive VP for Health and Safety Innovation, Jeff Miller, said in an announcement about the bounty, “Helmet technology is advancing at an impressive rate. Yet we believe that even more is possible. The NFL Helmet Challenge represents an unprecedented combination of financing, research, data and engineering expertise in an effort to create a more protective helmet.”
He added, “Innovation can be catalyzed if we engage with creative and talented people from across disciplines to attack this challenge together. In collaboration with the NFL Players Association, we are making changes on and off the field in an effort to improve protection for every player. Trying to ensure that players wear the best possible helmet is a substantial part of that commitment.”
CTE is a progressive degenerative brain disease that is commonly found in individuals who suffer repetitive head trauma, regardless of whether or not the trauma results in a concussion. It was initially associated mostly with boxers as early as the 1920s, but has gained renewed attention lately due to a growing number of NFL players being diagnosed with the condition.
The trauma leads to brain tissue being affected and can lead to abnormal levels of certain proteins found in the body. The transformation from a healthy to a diseased brain can occur over as little as just a couple of months or as long as a few decades, but the result is the same. The CTE patient suffers from memory loss, impaired judgment, depression, confusion, impulse control issues, aggression and, in many cases, dementia.
It isn’t clear how many players may have previously suffered from CTE or how many may be suffering now. The league began taking a closer look at the topic in 1994 under Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, but it wasn’t until 2002 that a definitive CTE diagnosis was made. That diagnosis came after Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist, studied the brain of former NFL player Mike Webster.
Omalu, who is also the co-founder of the Brain Injury Research Institute, confirmed CTE in two more players in the following years, both of who had committed suicide.
Virtually all types of helmets formerly used were banned prior to the start of last year’s season, with only a handful being permitted. However, the NFL wants to produce an even safer solution that would completely eliminate the possibility of CTE in players.