Concussions and brain injuries have been a specter haunting our enjoyment of sport, imparting lasting damage on the lives of many who play football, soccer, and other sports. Virginia Tech has been one of the leaders in testing football helmets for safety, and their research has led to teams across the country changing their helmets for ones that rate better. When they first did their research, they found that half of the Virginia Tech football team was wearing helmets that offered barely any protection from impacts and concussions; since then, they have changed their helmets to ones that rate five out of five stars on Virginia Tech’s STAR system. These tests “evaluate a helmet’s ability to reduce linear and rotational acceleration of the head resulting from a range of head impacts a football player might see on the field.”
Virginia Tech has now released a similar database for soccer helmets, and the implications are huge. In an interview with Richmond’s WCVE, Steve Rowson, director of the Helmet Testing Lab and assistant professor of biomedical engineering, discusses the advantages of helmets in soccer, saying that “the difference between wearing one and not wearing one [is] drastic.”
Their analysis focused on the clashing of heads, which is the most likely way that soccer players would get a concussion; they found that such a clash could impart upward of 150 G’s of force on each player (1 G of force is the amount the Earth exerts on us to keep on on the ground; the most disastrous race car crashes impart g-forces of between 100 G’s and 215 G’s). Using dummies, they tested each available helmet and also conducted tests on dummies without any headgear, and then ran the results through an equation designed to “represent the predictive concussion incidence of one player over a season.”
Without a helmet, there is nothing protecting a player from the full brunt of a hit. However, Virginia Tech found that the safest helmets, those rated five out of five stars, “translate to a concussion risk reduction of 70%” when compared to wearing no headgear at all. The lowest rated helmets barely provide any protection at all. The highest rated helmets are all headband style, and not the rugby-style helmet that you typically see soccer players wearing, and according to Abi Tyson from Virginia Tech, the Storelli Exoshield actually provides an 84% reduction in concussion risk, according to their findings.
If we can reduce the risk of concussions in soccer by 70%, and all it takes is players wearing these headbands, then US Soccer should definitely do it, especially at the youth level. Such a marked reduction is risk makes the choice obvious, and price is low enough to be within the reach of many youth players and low enough to be subsidized for everyone else.
The United States is often made fun of for having a different soccer culture than much of the rest of the world, but this is something where we could become the leaders. I don’t see widespread adoption of helmets in England any time soon, but US Soccer can and should use our standing as a soccer nation that does things in our own way to step up and ensure the safety of players from youth all the way through the professional sport.
Make helmets like this mandatory, starting at the youth levels, and then slowly roll them out across all levels of the sport here in America. It would be a bold choice, ridiculed by some, but at the end of the day it would show that we take the safety of the players of soccer seriously.