NEW YORK TIMES | AUG. 20, 2019
TOUCH FOOTBALL, SOLD AS SAFER, NOW REQUIRES A HELMET
A Texas program for high schools mandated soft-shell helmets after serious injuries occurred during incidental contact.
By Ken Belson
COLLEGE STATION, Tex. — On a steamy afternoon in June, Jim Poynter, the coach of the 7-on-7 touch football team at Lamar High School in Arlington, Tex., escorted one of his former players around the state tournament.
In a game last spring, the player, Brett Green Jr., was knocked out after his head collided with a teammate’s shoulder as they jumped to intercept a pass. Green was airlifted to a hospital, where bleeding in his brain was discovered. He spent weeks in the hospital recovering from dizziness, headaches and blurred vision, and had eye surgery and physical therapy. He will never play football again.
Poynter wanted Green to know that some good came of his misfortune. Spread across the fields, about 4,000 players on 128 teams from across Texas ran pass routes, defended receivers and celebrated with high fives. What mattered most to Poynter, though, was that every player wore a soft-shell helmet.
For years, 7-on-7 touch football has been billed as a safe way for players to stay in shape until tackle football starts up in the late summer. Most injuries involve twisted ankles, sprained knees and pulled muscles.
But Green’s injury prompted the Texas State 7on7 Organization, aware that parents are more concerned than ever about safety, to become the first statewide group in the country to require that all of its players wear soft-shell helmets, starting at this year’s state tournament.
“I don’t want that to happen to anyone else,” Green said. “It felt good to see in person because you know for sure they are wearing protection. I wish the decision had been made earlier, but I try to look for the good in everything.”
The rule change in Texas is a fresh reminder that head injuries do not occur only in tackle football. In recent years, the N.F.L. and other groups have promoted flag and touch football as safer ways to teach young players about the game, and to keep them from abandoning the sport. But as they do, parents, coaches and players are learning that every sport has risks.
“We’re living in a time where the perception of football is that mamas don’t want their babies to get hurt,” Doug Stephens, executive director of the Texas State 7on7 Organization, said. “The other sports, there’s a danger there that no one wants to talk about. People say football, football, football. I get it, because it’s a brutal, violent game.”
No helmet, soft or hard, can eliminate all head injuries, which can occur in many ways, including when a player’s head hits the ground. But soft-shell helmets with shock-absorbing padding can reduce the risk of a concussion by decreasing the force of a blow to the head. The extra protection can also lessen the chance of a head wound.
While there are no statistics on how many flag and touch football players wear headgear, manufacturers have seen a surge in orders from sports administrators, coaches and parents trying to prevent head injuries.
There are enough soft-shell helmets on the market now that scientists at Virginia Tech began rating them in July. Stefan Duma, the engineering professor who oversees helmet testing at the university, said the quality of soft-shell helmets varied widely. But the decision to mandate them in Texas, the largest high school touch football program in the country based on the number of teams, will spur the development of more sophisticated headgear and their adoption in other sports.
“People are starting to realize it’s not just football, but other sports,” he said. “When you have kids running really fast, bare head-to-head or head-to-elbow contact is a very high impact event. If people are going to be running around at high speeds, having some padding will make a huge difference.”
In a paper published this year, researchers at the University of Georgia found that youth flag football players from 7 to 10 years old suffered fewer major-impact head hits than tackle football players of the same age. But flag football players still received many smaller hits, including when they got close to opposing players to grab their flags.
“It became very clear there are kids falling down on almost every play,” Robert C. Lynall, a co-author of the study, said. “This idea that there is no contact at all is fairly naïve. The brain doesn’t care if it’s intentional contact or not.”
The growing demand for soft-shell helmets has been a boon for companies like Gamebreaker, which is based in Westlake Village, Calif., and VICIS, based in Seattle, the only two manufacturers to receive five-star ratings from Virginia Tech.
Mike Juels, Gamebreaker’s founder, said he expected other states and sports to require players to wear soft-shell helmets, which retail for about $49. His helmets use D3O “smart molecule” foam that absorbs more force than typical foams.
Juels said orders often jump when a player suffers a head injury that makes the news, as was the case in Texas. Coaches and administrators then rush to reassure parents that they are doing everything to protect their children.
Last spring, Frank Scott, the 7-on-7 touch football coach at Lake Minneola High School in Central Florida, bought 20 soft-shell helmets for his team after an opposing player fractured his skull in a game. Like many head injuries in touch football, the contact was incidental. The player tripped and hit his head on a Lake Minneola player’s knee.
“The players had to get used to them at first,” Scott said. “But once they wore them for a couple of games, they were fine.”
Juels, who sold the helmets used by nearly every team at the tournament in Texas, has also sold his helmets to tackle football programs at Miami, Oregon, Texas, Texas A&M and other universities, as well as several N.F.L. teams, which use them during nonpadded practices.
The youth and scholastic market, though, is far larger. Adidas, Pylon and other companies that run 7-on-7 tournaments already require that players wear soft-shell helmets.
“I was petrified, that’s how we got involved,” said Shannon Ferbrache, who runs the grass-roots football program at Adidas. “We were scared someone would get hurt.”
Children continue to get hurt. Mike Sadler, whose nephew was playing on the Bremond High School team in the tournament, said he was glad the team now wore helmets. In a qualifying game, an opposing player broke his nose when he collided with the head of a Bremond player. Bremond ordered helmets soon after.
“It’s a good thing,” Sadler said. “It’s all about safety, safety.”