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New Technologies In The Fight Against Concussions04:23

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The production floor at Xenith in Lowell, Mass., was buzzing. Xenith makes football helmets, and for six weeks in July and August the FedEx truck out front was filled daily. It was like Christmas season in the retail industry. And with all the news about the dangers of concussions, Christmas is getting bigger.

“The demand for better head protection grows by the day,” said  Dan Brown, the National Sales Manager for Xenith.

In 2004, Xenith was new kid. Now there are even newer companies and more innovations, all competing for what some believe to be a shrinking number of customers.

“Awareness is growing. It’s never been at a higher level,” Brown said. “So whether or not there’s more football players on the planet tomorrow, the actual need for better head protection will continue to grow.”

[sidebar title="The Science of Helmets" width="630" align="right"]Dr. Bill Meehan is skeptical of the new technologies. He tells Karen Given why they cannot prevent concussions. [/sidebar]“So our system is a system of shock absorbers that use fluid dynamics, said Sander Reynolds, Xenith's VP of Product Development. “So if you had a bike pump and you pump it very slowly it would be easy. But if you tried to pump it fast, that bike pump is pushing back at you.

Look inside the Xenith and you see something out of a science fiction movie. It's complicated. And a little bit heavy. But Reynolds says that's not the point.

“It really wasn’t a goal to reduce the weight,” he said. “We’re trying to make it safer, more comfortable, fit better.”

Nearly 1,000 miles away, nestled in an warehouse district in Brownsburg, Ind., Bill Simpson is also trying to build a safer, more comfortable, better fitting helmet. But, for him, weight is a primary concern.

“A kid could get hit in the shoulder, and because of the whiplash effect on his head, what they call a rotational injury, he could sustain a concussion,” Simpson said. “Well, the first issue then is if you have a 5 lb. helmet vs. a 2 lb. helmet, which one is going to be less mass on your head when you get hit in the shoulder?”

If Simpson's name is familiar, there's a reason why.

“I've been in the automobile racing industry since 1957,” he explained.

Simpson has been inducted into five motorsports halls of fame for his work in safety. He says he's spent several million dollars getting his SG Helmet ready for production. He passionately believes his design will revolutionize safety in contact sports, and maybe earn him a place in another hall of fame or two, but like everyone else in the business of building a better helmet there's only so much he can do.

“First of all, let me be way, way clear about this: There is no such a thing as a concussion proof helmet – I don't care what the snake-oil salesmen say,” Simpson said. “My goal was to mitigate the severity of a concussion.”

Back in Massachusetts at Reebok's sprawling world headquarters, Bob Rich shows off his company's new Checklight, an impact indicator tucked into a slim cap that can be worn alone or under a helmet.

“If I were to give this a whack on the table either a yellow or a red light will start to light up depending on how hard I hit it,” Rich explained.

The flashing red and yellow lights can't prevent concussions. They can't even determine when a player has received one. But, the Checklight can help coaches and trainers recognize when a player needs to be evaluated, and it can keep track of all those sub-concussive hits that accumulate over a season.

Isaiah Kacyvenski is head of the sports segment for MC10, Reebok's technology partner for the Checklight. Kacyvenski played for eight seasons in the NFL and suffered seven diagnosed concussions. He says, in its own way, the Checklight can help.

“So it's that teaching tool, that reminder, to keep your head out of impact,” he said. “When you think about it in that way you start to see how you can change that behavior over time with a real time feedback tool in practices and in games.”

Like the helmet manufacturers, Reebok isn't alone in the market.  At a recent conference, Bob Rich says he saw seven or eight different companies selling impact indicators.

“Concussions are in the media on a daily, certainly a weekly basis so I think companies are rushing to try to bring products to market that they hope can help,” Rich said.

This segment aired on August 24, 2013.

Karen Given Twitter Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.