The purpose of a protective sports helmet is obvious, but the detailed process of creating one involves far more than stuffing a hard shell with soft stuff. It’s painstaking, intensive work, based on a combination of collected data, practical trials, and ongoing, continuous research. And for the past 76 years, Riddell has established itself as a pioneer and leader in football helmet innovation.
Founded in 1929, Riddell has long been associated with safety and consistency. Its founder, John Tate Riddell, invented both the removable cleat and the plastic suspension helmet. But the modern helmet era began in 2002, when Riddell released the Riddell Revolution—its first helmet specifically designed with the intent to reduce the risk of concussion. And since then, Riddell has become known for its ongoing, perpetual concussion research, which the company uses to develop state-of-the-art football helmets for both youth and adults.
A concussion, simply put, is a traumatic injury to the brain. The short-term effects are confusion, ringing ears, slurring of speech, affected vision, and other temporary side effects, but a person’s brain can continue to experience abnormal activity years after the initial injury. For contact sports such as football, where head injuries can tally considerably, it’s important to safeguard against these potential dangers.
Riddell studied the on-field biomechanics of concussion incidents in which two players were known to have suffered a concussion in a particular play.
“We recreated those situations in a laboratory and discovered that of them, about 70 percent of the impacts were to the side of the head or the face,” explains Thad Ide, Senior Vice President of Research and Product Development at Riddell. The modern football helmet grew out of that research.
“Our helmets have much more substantial energy managing material in the side of the head and face areas,” says Ide. “The shell is extended into the mandible area [jawline] to provide better coverage.”
This type of testing and research is common for notable helmet companies, but what sets Riddell apart is its application of real-life, in-game data. In 2003, Riddell started tracking impact data via its Sideline Report System, or SRS. By building technology into the helmets themselves, Riddell researchers were able to measure where the hit came from, when the hit occurred, whether the hit was linear or rotational, and how forceful it was. Football teams all over the country began piloting the system, and more than 2.5 million data points helped determine which parts of the head were most commonly impacted.
Now, Riddell can incorporate real-life data into its technical expertise.
“It’s been an ongoing project over the last 10 years,” says Ide. “It’s a very unique data set that only Riddell has.”
In 2013, Riddell made its technology more accessible to consumers. Riddell used the technology from SRS to develop the InSite Impact Response System, which establishes a threshold for potential injury, and sets off an alarm if a player on field experiences a severe hit. It’s a metric that is based upon both linear and rotational impact; older helmets, owing to the lack of technology at the time, measured linear impacts exclusively. Today, coaches at every level from high school to professional can purchase the hardware for live usage during a football game.
Many dangerous concussions go undiagnosed, and now, coaches or medical staff can know exactly what’s happening on the field. They will be able to make the best decisions for their players’ welfare. They can check on a player, offer medical treatment, and offer additional defensive training for select players. The coach or medical team can also remove a player from the game or from the season entirely, especially if a player consistently sets off the alarm or tallies numerous dangerous hits over the course of several games. Additionally, InSite also works as a coaching tool that helps the coach re-teach players technique in the hope of limiting head impact exposure.
This sort of preventative work based upon precise data points rather than anecdotal knowledge informed the construction of Riddell 360 helmet in 2011, as well as the SpeedFlex helmet in 2014, which features Flex system innovation. This allows the shell, face mask, and face mask attachments to be flexible rather than remain rigid, which not only provides comfort, but also helps to evenly distribute the kinetic energy of frontal impacts.
According to research by Dr. Jason Mihalik in 2007, collegiate linebackers, over the course of two seasons, might see eight times the number of impacts that a wide receiver would. But unlike linebackers, who collide after a short distance, wide receivers play in the open field, and thus, their impacts tend to be higher in intensity. In the future, football helmets may be differentiated to account for position, its associated dangers — frequent, low-force impact vs. infrequent, high-force impacts — and everything in between.
No matter which helmet someone uses, there’s always margin for error; a game of full contact football will never be 100 percent safe. It’s impossible to anticipate, account for, and prevent every single outcome, but Ide is optimistic for the future.
“I can imagine a day in the not so distant future where helmets are produced or tuned to specific positions or specific skill levels of players,” he says. “We’re starting to learn about the impacts a receiver might see versus a linebacker versus a wide receiver.”