The most common questions: can concussions be prevented and how? Sports-related concussions are an issue that's plaguing athletes of all ages, across the world. But did you know that some of the most progressive work and research of helmets is taking place in Illinois?
If you've ever played football, you've worn a helmet, and chances are that helmet came from a factory in Litchfield, Illinois. At Schutt Sports helmets are manufactured, painted, assembled and packaged.
"What I have in my hand here is basically how your sons and daughter, and basically everyone's football helmets start right here," said Glenn Beckman, Schutt marketing director.
Schutt is the leading football helmet manufacturer in the world. Its clients include youth leagues, more than 800 colleges, and N.F.L. teams, including the Green Bay Packers. Like the rest of the football world, Schutt feels the impact of concussions.
"The issue that you're going to have ultimately, is you know, that they call the epidemiology of concussion. What actually is the cause of concussions?" said Robert Erb, C.E.O. of Schutt Sports.
According to Erb, technology against concussions can only move at the pace of research. That's where Schutt's lab in Salem, Illinois, comes into to play. The company uses a series of technologies to emulate real-life collisions. One machine drops helmets from various heights to imitate a player's helmet crashing into the ground. Another machine, called the linear impacter, uses a metal shaft to strike a helmet a various speeds. It simulates two players colliding at full speed.
"There's around four or five of these in the country, that I know of," Larry Maddux, Schutt's research and development director, said about the machine.
According to Maddux, Schutt tests beyond industry standards. The linear impacter is not yet required by National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, or NOCSAE, but could be soon because of its realistic results.
"Sometimes you're hit and your head is spun, or it goes this way. The software in this can not only tell you direct translational impact, but rotational type," he said.
After the helmets are struck or dropped at various speeds. The force is then calculated by computers and recorded. When slowed down on video, engineers examine how far the neck and head rotate. Maddux said the simulated hits do not compare to some of the most violent hits in the N.F.L. and other leagues. The impact is hard to catch with the naked eye, but something Schutt believes provides valuable information.
"What it tells us, not only whether we're meeting the industry standards, but we develop helmets by using it as a development tool," Maddux said.
The tools have changed the way Schutt produces helmets.The protective padding inside has changed the most. The helmet industry has long made the switch from cloth padding to foam and gels. But Schutt is the only company to move even further, according to Erb. It's designed a new technology called thermoplastics.
"It doesn't seem to be affected by temperature anywhere near foam does. So you can appreciate, with foam its a hot day, a lot of practice-the foam gets mushy. Or cold it becomes almost brick-like."
Helmets have become bigger. More space means more padding and better helmet protection, said Beckman. With hi-tech, computer-operated machines, Schutt helmet specifications remain consistent.
"One of our marketing slogans is 'it's what's on the inside that counts.' And that's true for an athlete and its true for our helmets, too," Beckman said.
Schutt continues to evolve, and constantly tweaks its shell. On average, the company releases a new product every six to eight months.
But is it enough to tackle concussions? Erb says not yet.
"We're so good at what we're doing here that you can take an egg. We can design around that egg and you could drop it out of a second story window. And it would be protected, and it would be fine. But what we're talking about here is the yoke inside an egg and what the movement and things are going to be."
According to Erb, there may never be a concussion proof helmet, but there are ways to limit the chances of concussions. One of the things he emphasizes is proper helmet fitting. He believes many people fit football helmets improperly.