With a device called ProCap, Bert Straus says he invented headgear that could reduce concussions in National Football League games. He never got the chance.
The ProCap, which took him eight years to develop, was gaining ground among players until he brought it before the NFL committee dealing with brain injuries. The panel disparaged Straus’s invention, prompting the league to warn players they risked death wearing it. The committee was guided in part by the advice of an outside consultant who once testified for Riddell Inc., the league’s official helmet maker, in an injury lawsuit.
Now the NFL and Riddell face lawsuits filed by more than 4,000 ex-players, including the family of San Diego Chargers standout Junior Seau, who committed suicide last May. The litigation focuses attention on Riddell’s helmets and whether the league covered up the sport’s long-term damage to players’ brains.
In Straus’s account of frustration and failure -- exacerbated, he says, by the NFL’s relationship with Riddell -- is a tale of a road that the NFL, a $9 billion-a-year business, may rue not taking. His story isn’t the only example of the NFL spurning a Riddell competitor. The league’s rebuffs of ProCap and other protective headgear raise the question of whether the NFL’s quarter-century alliance with Riddell helped stifle competition and innovation that might have reduced head injuries.
“Riddell was hostile toward ProCap, because ProCap pointed up the limitations of its helmets, and the NFL was biased toward Riddell,” Straus, 76, said in an interview. “That unfortunately counted for more than the welfare of the players.”
While about 68 percent of NFL players wore Riddell helmets last year, Riddell’s competitors “have always had (and continue to have) the same access to NFL locker rooms” as it does, the company said in a statement.
“Riddell’s primary mission has always been, and continues to be, providing the best protective football headgear to the athlete,” it said. “Riddell has produced state-of-the-art, industry-leading helmets for the athlete, and at the same time, Riddell has disseminated valuable knowledge to the helmet manufacturing industry” and “the independent helmet research community.”
Straus’s story begins in 1987, when the Erie, Pennsylvania, industrial designer was watching a college football game on TV. He winced when he saw two players go sprawling after a helmet-to-helmet collision. The crash jarred loose an idea: design a pillow-like buffer to fit over conventional helmets to cushion such blows.
Two years of tinkering produced the ProCap, a half-inch-thick urethane foam mold that would be worn atop conventional football helmets. Straus attached a prototype to a helmet and in 1989 had it tested at Wayne State University’s impact research lab. The results were encouraging. Dummy heads inside ProCap-wrapped helmets took 30 percent less of a jolt, on average, than those in unadorned ones.
Straus’s timing seemed propitious. Concussion concerns had begun to circulate among NFL players, coaches and executives. Straus sent ProCaps to the Buffalo Bills, the NFL franchise nearest to him. Intrigued, Bills trainer Ed Abramoski told Mark Kelso, a free safety who had just suffered his fourth concussion, that he wouldn’t be cleared to play in the next game unless he wore a ProCap, both men said.
Kelso did so and intercepted a pass against the Los Angeles Rams. He donned the device for the rest of a career that lasted until 1993 and included four Super Bowl appearances.
“It prolonged my career for years,” Kelso said. “I took a lot of kidding -- getting called ‘Bubblehead’ and ‘Gazoo’ -- because of how it looked, but I stopped getting concussions.”
ProCap gained other NFL converts, among them San Francisco 49ers lineman Steve Wallace. A 1992 All-Pro and the first offensive lineman to fetch a $10 million contract, Wallace was credited in Michael Lewis’s book, “The Blind Side,” with helping to boost the value of left tackles, who protect unwary quarterbacks from pass rushers.
After suffering three concussions in the first half of the 1994 season, Wallace concluded his Riddell helmet wasn’t giving him enough protection and began wearing a ProCap. He incurred no more concussions and won his third Super Bowl ring. A number of variables can affect concussion rates, including playing style and plain old luck. Still, from his place in the trenches, Wallace became a believer.
“The technology was there for ProCap,” Wallace said in an interview. “It was working.”
Kelso said he felt so strongly about ProCap that he invested in the product, joining a group assembled by Straus that pooled $200,000 to form a company, Protective Sports Equipment, and crank up production of ProCaps. Some of Kelso’s teammates, including receiver Don Beebe, began wearing ProCaps, as did a smattering of players on other teams. College football programs, including Alabama and Washington State, started ordering ProCaps, as did a rising number of high schools.
An independent 1995 study by George Washington University’s sports medicine department looked at data from the St. Albans School in Washington, where half the team wore ProCap. It found no concussions among users -- yet six among those who didn’t attach ProCaps to their helmets.
“It’s unusual to have such clear findings in a small group,” said Kenneth Fine, an orthopedic surgeon who co-ran the study. “We didn’t find ProCap created a danger of neck injuries; we found it reduced cervical strain.”
Straus thought he was on the cusp of a breakthrough when he was invited the same year to make a presentation on ProCap to a concussion study panel, formally known as the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, which the NFL’s then-commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, formed in 1994. It turned out he wasn’t.
Since 1989, the NFL had developed a deepening commercial relationship with Riddell, a Rosemont, Illinois-based athletic gear maker whose founder, John Tate Riddell, invented the plastic suspension helmet, adopted first by the U.S. military, in 1939. By the time Straus came before the concussion committee, Riddell helmets donned about 80 percent of NFL player heads, according to a company filing.
When Straus addressed the NFL’s concussion committee about ProCap in 1995, not all its members were head injury experts. Chairman Elliot Pellman, team doctor for the New York Jets, was a rheumatologist; Joseph Waeckerle, physician for the Kansas City Chiefs, was an emergency medicine specialist.
They relied for scientific advice on non-football experts, one of whom was a consultant to the committee named Albert Burstein. This Cornell Medical College biomechanics professor had served as an expert witness for Riddell in a federal court case in Wichita, Kansas, in which a paralyzed high-school football player was awarded $12 million.
At the end of the presentation, according to Straus, Burstein asked if ProCap had been tested for “axial loading,” compression of the neck and spine by a blow to the top of the head. He expressed concern that in a collision of two helmets, one with ProCap and one without, the hard helmet would stick to the ProCap’s softer surface long enough to cause axial loading.
Straus pledged to test for the phenomenon and did, his company paying Pennsylvania State University Biomechanics Laboratory to conduct studies on dummy heads with and without ProCaps. The conclusion: ProCap reduced impacts of collisions by as much as a third.
“It is my opinion that the ProCap should be mandatory for all football players,” Richard Nelson, the lab’s founder, wrote in a report to Straus.
Yet when Straus sent the findings to the concussion committee, the panel startled him with a different interpretation. Burstein wasn’t changing his hypothesis, according to Pellman. The Penn State results confirmed “our greatest concern regarding axial loading and catastrophic neck injuries,” Pellman wrote in a December 1995 letter to Tagliabue.
Nelson was a big name -- founding editor of the International Journal of Sports Biomechanics -- and he strenuously disagreed with Burstein, whose primary field was prosthetics.
“It is incredible that such a conclusion can be drawn when, in fact, the results show the exact opposite,” Nelson wrote at the time.
Even worse, in Straus’s view, the league in June 1996 sent players a memo warning not only that the “standard helmet manufacturer’s warranty may be negated or modified by the use of the ProCap,” but that wearers risked “catastrophic neck injuries, including possible death.”
Wallace, for one, recalls getting the message. When he played his final season for the Kansas City Chiefs in 1997, the team forbade him from wearing the ProCap, he said. Waeckerle, then the Chiefs’ physician, was a member of the concussion committee. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
Riddell salesmen gave copies to dealers in youth sports equipment and ProCap college customers, Straus said. He wrote to the NFL office, accusing Riddell of disseminating a confidential league memo. A league official wrote back, disputing the claim, Straus said.
Asked why it discouraged use of ProCap, Riddell said in a statement that “we recommend against any alterations that change the fit, form or function of our helmets.” Greg Aiello, an NFL spokesman, declined to comment, saying league officials aren’t “interested in looking backward.” Burstein declined to comment, saying his work for the committee was confidential.
The ProCap wasn’t the only non-Riddell headgear that the concussion committee derailed. In 1999, Bike Athletic Co. introduced the Bike Pro Edition helmet, endorsed by the NFL Players Association’s then-president Trace Armstrong. A Miami Dolphins defensive lineman and amateur auto racer, Armstrong had noticed that drivers’ helmets were often upgraded with new technology while football helmets hadn’t changed in decades.
He collaborated with a Bike designer on the Pro Edition, which was lighter and more flexible than earlier helmets. The theory, endorsed by several physicians, was that the reduced weight would make players less fatigued and susceptible to injuries, said Ed Christman, a former Bike marketing executive.
In 2000, as the number of NFL players wearing the Bike Pro Edition climbed to about 100, Pellman, the concussion committee chairman, stated publicly that the helmet failed to withstand hits administered by Biokinetics and Associates Ltd., a Canadian impact-testing company. Pellman’s New York Jets players predominantly wore Riddell. Use of the Bike helmet dwindled.
“There was a certain level of arrogance,” said Armstrong, now an agent for football coaches. The committee “thought they had all the answers.”
Pellman declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the concussion litigation. He wrote in a 2003 article published in the medical journal Neurosurgery that he wanted his committee to assess whether manufacturers were making unsupported claims to team physicians about their headgear reducing concussions.
“These claims were not based on scientific data but rather were ‘sales pitches’ made by overzealous salespeople,” he wrote.
The panel’s own reliance on Biokinetics data had a commercial tinge, according to people familiar with the committee’s activities and documents in a patent lawsuit involving Riddell.
Biokinetics received Riddell funding in 1998 for a study commissioned by the NFL’s committee. Riddell then relied on the Biokinetics data to develop a new helmet, which was touted by a 2006 study co-authored by two members of the concussion committee and paid for by Riddell. The research was peer-reviewed and there was no conflict of interest, said Michael Collins, the neuropsychologist who headed the study.
The committee’s activities are central to the current litigation against the NFL and Riddell. Most of the ex-players’ lawsuits are consolidated into one case in federal court in Philadelphia, which alleges that the NFL concealed the threat to players’ health even as its concussion committee purported to examine the medical evidence.
The suit accuses Riddell, a co-defendant, of making inadequate helmets for years and then, upon finally producing an upgraded model, exaggerating the protection they provided. The NFL and Riddell are seeking to dismiss the consolidated lawsuit, maintaining that disputes over player health issues must be decided by arbitration under the league’s collective-bargaining agreements and aren’t subject to litigation.
President Barack Obama expressed concern about football injuries in a New Republic interview on Jan. 27, saying that if he had a son he would “have to think long and hard” before letting him play football,” and predicting that the sport “will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.”
One such change already took place. Before the 2011 season, the league reduced opportunities for kick-off returns -- one of football’s most violent plays -- by moving up kick-offs to the 35-yard line. Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a Dec. 6 interview in Time magazine that he is considering eliminating kick-offs entirely.
Riddell is part of Easton-Bell Sports Inc., which is majority owned by private equity firm Fenway Partners LLC. Riddell had $121 million in sales of helmets, shoulder pads, facemasks and other football gear in 2011, up 48 percent from $81.9 million in 2009, according to Easton-Bell filings.
Riddell’s first helmets were used by American soldiers in World War II and debuted on NFL players in 1949. By the late 1980s, helmet manufacturers were under siege from liability lawsuits. Courts awarded injured football players $46 million in damages during the 1970s and 1980s, Rawlings Sporting Goods Co. said in a 1988 announcement, explaining why it had become the 18th helmet maker to leave the business. The biggest remaining manufacturers were Schutt Sports Inc., based in Litchfield, Illinois, and Riddell.
The NFL struck its “official helmet” deal with Riddell in 1989 to ensure a viable survivor in the industry, according to J.C. Wingo, company president in the early 1990s. Under its terms, NFL teams enjoyed deep discounts if they equipped at least 90 percent of their players in Riddell helmets.
In return, Riddell was allowed to sell NFL-licensed replica helmets and other collectibles and became the only manufacturer whose logo could appear on players’ helmets. The agreement gave the company “a real shot in the arm,” Wingo said.
Schutt Sports argued in a 1989 suit that the deal violated antitrust law because Riddell’s exclusive visibility in the NFL would sway the helmet purchases of college and high-school coaches wanting to emulate the pros. Schutt’s legal challenge failed and with it, according to sports concussion expert Robert Cantu, any chance of robust competition that might spawn helmet improvements.
“The ‘official helmet’ deal has given Riddell an unfair advantage,” said Cantu, a neurologist and Boston University School of Medicine professor who is on the board of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.
That dominance had its downside in the early 1990s, when concussions drove a rash of stars to the sidelines or retirement. Several, including San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young and New York Jets wide receiver Al Toon, wore Riddell’s VSR line of helmets.
Riddell had introduced the VSR line in the late 1980s. The final model, the VSR-4, debuted in 1993 and was still being worn by 38 percent of NFL players in 2010, according to Riddell. The VSR-4 was the second worst of 15 helmets tested by the Virginia Tech Center for Injury Biomechanics in 2011, the year Riddell stopped selling it. The Virginia Tech study didn’t receive industry or league funding.
While the concussion committee vetoed the ProCap, it boosted development and marketing of Riddell’s Revolution line of helmets. In 1996, the panel engaged Biokinetics to review concussive hits on NFL game videos and replicate them in its Ottawa laboratories. Biokinetics augmented its NFL support in 1998 with “partial funding” and consultation from Riddell, Riddell said.
Under their contract, Biokinetics developed a test to evaluate how helmets responded to “potentially concussive” hits, Riddell said. The test became “widely used by helmet makers and researchers when evaluating helmet designs and conducting head injury research,” Riddell said.
While the test was proprietary to Riddell, the company shared the design shortly afterward with other helmet manufacturers, it said. The NFL-commissioned research became so integral to the design of Riddell’s Revolution that two Biokinetics engineers are on the helmet’s patent.
The development of the Revolution epitomized the inside track afforded Riddell by its relationship with the NFL, said Julie Nimmons, then chief executive officer of Schutt. “It was very clear what had taken place and it was difficult,” Nimmons said.
When the Revolution debuted in 2002, featuring increased side cushioning and the addition of a jaw pad, Riddell marketed it as an upgrade from the VSR-4 and the embodiment of the latest concussion research. The company’s catalog called it “the first helmet using technology designed with the intent of reducing the risk of concussion.”
In 2003, Riddell began investing $336,000 in a project conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and aimed at demonstrating that the Revolution reduced concussions.
The three-year study of more than 2,000 Western Pennsylvania high school football players -- about half of whom wore the Riddell helmet, half of whom wore others -- found that Revolution wearers had 31 percent fewer concussions. Two of the five co-authors were members of the concussion committee: Joseph Maroon, the Pittsburgh Steelers team neurosurgeon, and Mark Lovell, a University of Pittsburgh neuropsychologist.
Riddell made the 31 percent reduction claim the centerpiece of a marketing campaign that fueled the Revolution’s sales. The brand’s annual sales volume tripled from 47,466 units in 2002 to 142,949 in 2009, according to testimony by Riddell Chief Financial Officer Allison Boersma.
Maroon and Lovell referred questions to Collins of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who headed the Riddell Revolution study team. Collins said he doesn’t see any conflict between their work on Riddell-funded research and their positions on the concussion committee.
“We had no control of what Riddell did with the information,” he said. “We’re scientists, not marketers.”
Cantu, the neurologist and sports concussion expert, criticized the University of Pittsburgh study in a comment accompanying its publication in Neurosurgery in February 2006.
He said that Biokinetics analyzed just 25 concussive hits, or 3 percent of the 787 NFL concussions reported during the study period. All 25 involved open-field tackles of quarterbacks and wide receivers.
“It is still an open question as to whether the new helmet design is truly superior to other Riddell helmets or competitive helmets in reducing concussion,” Cantu wrote.
The 2011 Virginia Tech study supported the Pittsburgh finding that the Revolution deters concussions. It rated the Revolution Speed, a more recent model, as the safest of the 15 helmets tested.
U.S. Senator Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, asked the Federal Trade Commission in January 2011 to investigate whether Riddell’s claim of a 31 percent reduction in concussions was misleading. The FTC’s investigation is ongoing, according to a Udall spokesman. The FTC declined to comment.
Under pressure from Congressional hearings on sports injuries and scientific papers that documented massive brain trauma in deceased NFL players, NFL Commissioner Goodell overhauled the concussion committee in 2010. Emerging from the NFL helmet wilderness, ProCap inventor Straus was invited to a league forum in New York that December.
For eight years, Straus had been adapting the ProCap into a whole new helmet, which he called the Gladiator. After rounding up more investors, Straus developed a prototype, which he hoped would be welcomed in the NFL’s changing concussion climate.
After Straus’s presentation, he was approached by Pellman, now an adviser to the concussion committee. He introduced Straus to Goodell.
“That’s a very interesting technology; keep going,” the commissioner told Straus, who felt vindicated.
Despite Goodell’s encouragement, Straus’s company ran out of money in August 2011, and development of the Gladiator stalled. On Feb. 23, Straus and his co-investors agreed to sell the business to a West Chester, Pennsylvania-based group that wants to revive ProCap.
The buyers won’t find any marketing help in the NFL’s current manual of “policies for players.” Reiterating its 1996 memo, the league warns that ProCap could cause “catastrophic neck injury which could result in death.”
They also won’t get help from Riddell. Last year, a Riddell salesman dissuaded Jeremy Plaa, a Modesto, California, high-school football coach, from having his players wear ProCap-like devices on their helmets, Plaa said in an interview.
“He told me some NFL players used to wear ProCaps back in the ’90s, but studies showed that hard plastic helmets absorbed blows better than soft surfaces,” said Plaa, head coach at Thomas Downey High School. “He said if it was such a great thing, all the NFL players would be wearing one and they don’t.”
Wallace, the former 49er and Chief, still fumes. ProCap’s demise “wasn’t about the players’ safety, it was about the dollar bills,” he said.