The NFL’s new helmet is supposed to make players safer from brain injuries. It’ll almost certainly do the opposite

There’s no escaping it: football is a violent sport.
There’s no escaping it: football is a violent sport.
Image: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This fall, some of the most elite football players in the National Football League and on college teams around the country have taken the field wearing a new kind of helmet. The Vicis Zero1 helmet looks almost identical to the standard football helmet, but it has a soft shell that crumples on contact—similar to an automobile bumper—reducing impact against the brain. It offers a wider field of vision, allowing players to see opponents in their periphery who would have otherwise remained invisible. In tests, it has outscored the newest products by the best and oldest manufacturers. It is the first true, and most substantial innovation in the construction of football helmets in decades. Indeed, it may be the most significant breakthrough in brain safety for a sport that over the last ten years has been all but definitively proven to pose significant long term neurological risks. This technology is all the more important at the youth and high school levels, where concern over neurological health is greatest. It is probably the safest football helmet in the world, and has the potential to save lives. But in the hands of the NFL, the Zero1 has made the sport a lot more dangerous.

Every year the NFL does something to retain its title as “The League of Denial.” This year, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) terminated an agreement for $30 million in research funding with the NFL for brain trauma research when the NIH realized that the NFL would hardly allow that money to be used toward anything that could be viewed as detrimental to the standing of the sport. It is not exactly an insoluble mystery as to whether or not the NFL really, genuinely cares about the safety of its players.

Given the NFL’s evasive and toxic attitude toward the issue of concussions and brain injury, what the NFL will likely do is commandeer this tremendous technical and medical achievement—Vicis Zero1—and use it to shield itself from responsibility about the long-term neurological health of its players. The NFL will also use this helmet to purport that that the issue of concussions has been sufficiently addressed, and that therefore so too has the issue of brain injury, shying away from the real monster that has been lingering over the sport over the last few years: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.

Researchers are still in the early stages of understanding CTE, but it is best described as brain damage that stems from repeated sub-concussive hits to the head, and can likely occur regardless of how many or few concussions a player might have suffered. A recent study showed that of the 110 brains of former NFL players examined, 99% were found to have CTE. Addressing concussions alone—as the Zero1 will, hopefully—cannot obviate the risk of CTE. With the exception of linemen, most sub-concussive hits occur when a player is thrown to the ground and his brain bounces against the side of his skull, or when he is tackled and suffers whiplash. Both of these can happen without so much as a scrape against the head. “Most injuries are probably from getting tackled and hitting the ground. There is a rapid acceleration and deceleration of the brain,” says Dr. Uzma Samadani, neurosurgeon at the Minneapolis VA medical center and traumatic brain injury researcher.

Last year the NFL earmarked $100 million in funding toward CTE, and allocated 60% of that money toward technological improvements, despite the obvious reality that no piece of technology can change the physical properties of the brain (which is why the Zero1 does not claim to address the aforementioned kind of sub-concussive hits). The brain sits inside the skull, floating in cerebrospinal fluid. When the body of a wide receiver is rocked, say, by a the shoulder of 220 pound defender charging at top speed, his body will come to a quick stop and his brain will hit the side of his skull. The Zero1 can protect against this sort of hit about as well as an airbag can protect someone in the back seat of a car against whiplash. And yet, technology like the Zero1 allows the NFL to justify funneling the vast majority of their CTE money toward a cause that could not possibly address the root cause of CTE.

The Zero1 helmet will also clash violently against player culture in the NFL. Tackling another player with one’s helmet out in front, or deliberately hitting another player with a helmet is illegal. But often it happens by accident when players lower their head to protect themselves. Imagine that this same 220-pound defender is charging an opponent: will his helmet-wearing target be more inclined to keep his head up straight, or to instinctively lower the crown of his head? The reason players have so many head collisions is because they are wearing helmets. Nobody in rugby uses their head for self-defense, and rugby tackles deliberately avoid use of the head. The Zero1 helmet makes it all that much easier for players to feel comfortable leading with their helmet and using it as a defense tool, leading to more head collisions and more sub-concussive hits. The effects of the Zero1 may resonate to the level of referees as well; anyone who watches football will instantly recognize the telltale crack of two helmets hitting each other. It is audible even over television. In person, it can be heard across a field. The Zero1’s force redistribution properties turn that crack into a dull thud, which, in effect, makes it sound a lot less harrowing. NFL refs may not be as inclined to throw flags or eject players from games for such hits, knowing that the Zero1 helmet is in play.

But the greatest danger of introducing the Zero1 helmet to the NFL is that by giving players the safest helmet they could possibly wear, the NFL is also incentivizing another extremely dangerous NFL tradition: the hiding of concussions. This year, Gisele Bündchen—wife of Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady—suggested that her husband routinely hides concussions. In an interview with the Detroit Free-Press, Calvin Johnson, a recent NFL retiree and one of the greatest receivers to ever play the game, said it much more candidly: “Guys get concussions, they don’t tell the coaches…I don’t tell the coach sometimes cause I know I got a job to do…And sometimes you allow that to jeopardize yourself.” And as it turns out, not even the Zero1 helmet can completely protect it’s wearer from concussions, as shown by Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, who suffered a concussion while wearing the Zero1 on Sep. 10.

Aside from love of the game, the reason players might feel the need to hide concussions is that even some of best football players have been replaced after just a few weeks on injury. Missing a single game due to concussion can be even more damning for a player from the very bottom of a roster with no guarantees in his contract and a lot of competition for his same job. A player, under those circumstances is even more liable to hide a concussion or a brain injury and get back in and play. It isn’t exactly hard to get away with, either, given that the NFL’s concussion protocol is a more akin to asking a player if he feels fine than it is to actual medicine. You can’t always see concussions on scans, and sideline eye tests may not be conclusive or even indicate that a concussion took place. Basically, it’s a guessing game, now with the added uncertainty introduced by a concussion-reduction helmet.

With The Zero1, NFL players will have tremendous plausible deniability when it comes to hiding brain injuries. How could they, after all, really be concussed, with the Vicis Zero1? Worse yet, the Zero1 will be used to put the onus on players to not have concussions—it makes players shoulder the responsibility of not being concussed and being able to continue playing. They were provided with the Zero1, so the rest, unfortunately, is on them. Technological advancements, like the ones that the NFL has poured the majority of its CTE research money into, will only be used to obfuscate the severity of brain injuries.

The Zero1 helmet is like a figure in a Greek tragedy. It aims to prioritize player safety in a league that thrives on the exact opposite. The NFL’s entire player base relies on parents who allow their children to become peewee players and high school students and college students who will gladly dedicate their bodies and brains to a game that almost none of them will be able to play professionally, and from which the few who do often end up walking away after only three years with very little money in their pockets.

The truth of the NFL is that players routinely undergo hits that are as violent as automobile crashes, but instead of airbags and seat belts and collapsible bumpers, they have only a small amount of helmet to protect them. The way to preserve the game is to understand the effects of the violence, not to make a priority of chasing phantom pieces of gear that can change the physics of the human brain. The Vicis Zero1 was built and designed for a league that would teach players and coaches to better understand and recognize the signs of a concussion, that would include brain safety precautions as part of regular coaching, that might teach quarterbacks how to protect their receivers, that might suspend players for anything less than a criminally deliberate hit to another player’s head, that might not incentivize getting back into a game either for glory or for a paycheck. But that isn’t the NFL as it exists today. And the safest helmet ever developed will not be a tool used by the NFL to protect its players, but rather, for the NFL to protect itself.