Did Business Interests Cause The NFL To Squash A Product That Could Have Reduced Concussions?

Former lineman Steve Wallace wearing a ProCap

Was the National Football League and a committee it established to protect players from brain injuries instrumental in killing a padded helmet cover that may have reduced the likelihood of concussions for players who wore it? And did it do so because the product possibly threatened Riddell, the helmet manufacturer that had a business relationship with the league? That’s the implication of a Bloomberg story published Monday on the ProCap, a pad that fit over players’ helmets and, according to its inventor, was able to reduce the force of blows to the head and thus the occurrence of concussions.

Industrial designer Bert Straus, the ProCap’s inventor, put his product in front of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee in 1995 after multiple players who had suffered previous concussions adopted it for use in NFL play. The committee, however, rejected his proposal and ultimately ruled that the ProCap was actually more dangerous for players. That and the committee’s recommendations against other helmets, according to Straus and others, was a result of the NFL’s relationship with Riddell, whose helmets didn’t receive the same scrutiny from the league even though, according to one study, they were more dangerous than those made by other manufacturers.

The research behind the ProCap isn’t clear. While one small-sample research project showed that it reduced the occurrence of concussions, the other supporting study was paid for by Straus’ business, and other products, like special mouth guards and helmet products, that have claimed to substantially reduce concussions have been questioned. As Paul Anderson, an expert on the lawsuit former players filed against the NFL last year, told me Monday, such products are often marketed in a way that fosters a false sense of confidence among users even though there is very little research to support claims that they make players less likely to suffer concussions (and, in many instances, research proving they don’t).

The MTBI committee ultimately came to the conclusion that the ProCap could be more dangerous for the head and neck, and Anderson suggested that the committee at least based this decision on science. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an inherent conflict of interest on the committee that could have prevented it from banning products, ProCap or otherwise, that could have offered players more options for protection on the field.

Why does that matter? The conflict between the NFL’s business interests and the MTBI committee’s stated goal of protecting players is a major piece of the lawsuit from more than 4,000 former players that claims the NFL withheld and covered up information linking football to concussions and long-term brain injuries. The MTBI committee has a long history of seeming to do just that, with its own director and its own body of research downplaying the dangers of concussions, the need for “hard and fast protocol” for treatment, and the connection between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy all the way until 2010, when it was disbanded.

Whether the ProCap itself could have reduced concussions doesn’t necessarily matter as much as the appearance of conflict that may have prevented the NFL and the MTBI committee from thoroughly considering alternative products and, more importantly, research that ran contra to the NFL’s financial interests. Even if the committee got the science right in this instance, its ability to question alternative products without examining Riddell’s helmets—one of which finished 14th of 15 helmets in one concussion impact test—with the same scrutiny seems to call into question the idea that it was operating with the singular goal of protecting the players.

That doesn’t mean the players are destined to win the lawsuit; in fact, this specific instance likely won’t have much effect on the overall lawsuit at all. If there is a smoking gun that proves the players’ claim, it will almost certainly be found in the discovery stage. That is still a ways off, given that a federal judge will decide on the NFL’s motion to dismiss next month, and it may turn out that the MTBI committee and the NFL have all the research they need to back up their actions (or lack thereof). But the narrative is building that the NFL’s lack of action on concussions was not, as former player Steve Wallace told Bloomberg, “about players’ safety, it was about the dollar bills.” That’s a characterization the NFL can ill-afford, but it’s also a characterization that with every bit of new evidence seems more and more accurate.