As the collegiate and professional football seasons wind down to their finales this year, it is interesting to reflect on the controversy surrounding brain injuries in contact sports. The National Athletic Trainers Association claims high-school football players collectively experience up to 67,000 concussions annually. One study found an Alzheimer’s-like by-product of concussions called chronic traumatic encephalophathy in 17 former professional players, a college player, and even in an 18-year-old high-school player.
Football-helmet designs have come under heavy scrutiny as the public has come to understand the seriousness of concussion injuries. High-school players are at particular risk because many schools lack the funds to buy the newest helmet technology or have old helmets reconditioned. And many old helmets have internal cushioning that consists mainly of vinyl-covered foam pads. The foam condenses over time and, consequently, absorbs less force.
There’s also been a brouhaha over helmet testing done last year by the National Football League. One helmet maker withdrew from the testing program fearing the results would be misleading. Critics claimed testers weren’t at arms’ length from the League.
All in all, it might be a good time for some nontraditional thinking about the design of football helmets. There’s been no shortage of original ideas. A few years ago, Machine Design profiled one from designer Bert Straus called the Gladiator, which remains a work in progress. Among the latest developments is a novel concept from independent industrial designer Michael Princip. Princip last suited up for a football game in high school, but has maintained an interest in helmets throughout his 15-year design career. “Helmet makers are going at each other for trivial things that, in my opinion, don’t help the players,” he says. “The whole notion of the single shell with the padding on the inside is .... almost like a bumper car without the bumper on the outside.”
His concept takes a fresh view of the polycarbonate helmet, which was initially designed more to prevent skull fractures and subdural hematomas than concussions. “I started by cutting up the shell and playing with the padding and its placement. I figure I can dissipate the energy in different segments before it reaches the inner shell.” The result is a helmet with its external shell in pieces, fastened together in a clever way. Individual pieces of it can be sculpted for specific players and the positions they play, or swapped out easily in the event of wear.
Arguably, one reason other advanced helmet designs haven’t caught on is that players just didn’t like the way they looked. That’s not likely to be a problem with Princip’s concept. “My design gets some of its lines from the sinuous curvy stitched lines of past helmets,” he says. “They had a different take on design back then. Today, helmets seem to get their lines from stealth fighters.”
Princip’s work has already gained notice from parties interested in the helmet controversy. But he harbors no illusions about the chances of his design being widely adopted. “I’m not sure how this will end up,” he admits. “I am not really trying to compete with the helmet companies, I am just trying to take things to a different level with new technology.”