Even by the alarmist standards of many product warnings, the labels on the backs of the football helmets are bracingly blunt: “No helmet system can protect you from serious brain and/or neck injuries including paralysis or death. To avoid these risks, do not engage in the sport of football.”
Schutt Sports has plastered these words on its helmets for about a decade. To keep up with the times, the warning also pops up on the home page of the company’s website, and a scannable label that links to information about head injuries provided by the Centers for Disease Control is affixed to the helmet.
“The simplest thing we can do is remind people that the game has inherent risks,” said Robert Erb, Schutt’s chief executive. “It’s an ethical, moral and legal issue. People need to know these things.”
As concerns about the long-term effects of playing football grow – and lawsuits against leagues, coaches and equipment makers mount – helmets are coming under renewed scrutiny, particularly during the summer, when teams begin preparing for the new season and leagues, coaches and parents buy new helmets or refurbish older ones.
The wording of these warnings – some of the more visible acknowledgments of the sport’s risk – is governed largely by lawyers, product engineers and the organization that creates the standards that helmet manufacturers follow, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, or Nocsae. Helmet makers follow Nocsae’s template for warning labels and then adjust them as they see fit. Rawlings, which began making football helmets three years ago, adopted Schutt’s language in its warnings. Other companies, including Riddell, the largest manufacturer of helmets in the country and the official helmet manufacturer of the NFL., stop short of suggesting that risk-averse players give up the sport.
“We feel strongly that the information, education and warning materials that accompany Riddell helmets are clear, concise and comprehensive,” Riddell said.
As with all warnings, companies try to balance how much to include in their disclaimers lest they overburden consumers, who are predisposed to ignore them, or leave themselves open to legal challenge. As a result, even the most basic warnings include declarations that no helmet can prevent all head or neck injuries, and using a helmet to butt, ram or spear an opposing player is not advised.
Schutt went further, even though the warning scared off customers – including an official with a large youth league in California who said the language was offensive and hurt the game of football. Erb, though, said his company had a responsibility to be as explicit as possible and not give players, parents and coaches a false sense of security.
“This is not to provoke fear or controversy,” he said. “It was to tell you to look both ways when you cross the street, not ‘don’t cross the street.’”
When it comes to the safety of sporting gear, football helmets have received an overwhelming share of the attention in recent years because football is the country’s most popular sport and because of high-profile lawsuits, including one filed by retired NFL. players who claim that the league and Riddell hid evidence about the dangers of repeated head trauma for decades.
Coaching, enforcement and observation “are the factors that exert more influence on behavior,” said Paul Frantz, a co-founder of the consulting company Applied Safety and Ergonomics, which helps companies develop warning labels. “The language on the helmet is the type of thing that might supplement what’s already in place. When you combine all those things, it might have a chance of affecting behavior.”
With products like cigarettes and medicines, regulators shape what language must be in warnings. Yet most products, from detergent to motorcycle helmets, are used in unregulated environments. Sports helmets, by contrast, are often worn in view of coaches, fans and referees, who can penalize players for using them improperly.
“The general notion people get stuck on is prevention,” said Stefan Duma, who runs the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest Biomedical Engineering and Sciences Department, which rates sports helmets. “But nothing can prevent everything. However, it’s about risk reduction.”
Of course, helmet makers have no control over how players tackle or defend themselves when being tackled. Many players hide injuries to avoid being taken out of games.
“No court would believe a 12-year-old understood the risk they were getting into, so who is the warning for?” said Chris Nowinski, the executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute and an advocate for head-trauma research in sports. “Most kids won’t see the warning until they’ve joined the team. And a lot of kids play because their parents get them to or because the NFL is a fantastic promoter of the sport.”
Plaintiffs’ lawyers see something more sinister. They say that helmet warnings are a smoke screen to protect manufacturers who promote safety and embolden athletes to play recklessly, yet throw up walls when athletes are injured wearing their helmets.
“They are saying to the public that you should buy our helmet, and they’re saying, if someone gets hurt, don’t blame us,” said Michael Kaplen, a lawyer who leads the New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council. “The selling of helmets is being done by the marketing department, and the label is made up by the legal department.”