Head-on concerns: Cardinal Newman purchases caps to prevent concussions, but some experts say device hasn't been tested enough
Sunday, August 26, 2012
by Matt Porter
Cardinal Newman players line up during a practice on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012 at the school's West Palm Beach practice field. Newman is the first Palm Beach County team to wear Guardian Caps, an anti-concussion foam pad worn on the outside of helmets. (Taylor Jones/The Palm Beach Post)
Like other high school football coaches, Cardinal Newman's Steve Walsh has heard about the myriad research being done to learn more about concussion prevention and wants to protect his players.
In an effort to be proactive, Walsh purchased Guardian Caps, a protective helmet shield made of spandex-covered gel pads, for the Crusaders to wear in practice this season.
The caps cannot stop damage from a head-rattling hit; no piece of protection can. What the makers of the caps claim they can do is absorb some of the force from the minor, repetitive hits players take in practice. Research has shown sub-concussive blows can cause long-term damage.
"No one knows when the hit comes," said Walsh, the former University of Miami and NFL quarterback. "If you take out some of the risk, you're helping alleviate the problem."
That much is clear. But do the caps work?
"Interesting question," said R. Dawn Comstock of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Comstock is concerned that Guardian Caps are on the market without being subjected to in-depth medical field study.
"Can I say definitely that they don't work? No," Comstock said. "What I'm incredibly disturbed by is the growing number of products flooding the market that make claims of reducing concussion risk based on impact testing at best."
Lee Hanson, owner of Alpharetta, Ga.-based POC Ventures, said his product has been proven to reduce impact on a player's helmet by up to 33 percent, thus potentially reducing the risk of a concussion. He said the caps have been tested in labs for two years.
"We've heard all this before," Hanson said. "We're a research and technology company. We know all about testing and making sure a product works. We also know once you get a product that does work, you can't keep testing and not bring it to the market. We know it works."
While Hanson is careful to say his product is not an anti-concussion device, Comstock said that's disingenuous.
"Why are you selling the thing if you don't intend people to think that?" she said. "There's an inherent claim that's what the product is for."
Guardian Caps are the cousin of ProCap, the foam-and-plastic helmet covering worn by a handful of NFL players some 25 years ago. One of them, former Buffalo Bills safety Mark Kelso, is a POC board member.
Kelso's protective gear drew laughs from teammates -- they called him "The Great Gazoo," in reference to the Flintstones character -- but the Guardian Cap isn't nearly as bulbous. It weighs five ounces, light enough that Newman players haven't complained.
After testing a pair during May spring practice, Walsh bought 36 -- enough to outfit the varsity -- at an unspecified discount on the $69.95 retail price.
Hanson said 5,500 caps have been sold to 200 high schools and youth leagues in 38 states, though Cardinal Newman and Weston-Cypress Bay are the only high school teams in Florida wearing them. Marc Altman, South Florida sales manager for POC, said he made presentations to Lake Lytal and Wellington's youth leagues. He said cost has slowed sales.
Seminole Ridge coach Matt Dickmann said he wasn't sold on buying Guardian Caps for his 42 varsity players. "We can't afford them in our budget," he said, "and I don't know how much research is behind it."
The latter is of great concern to Comstock, who cautioned marketers are using the recent increase in concussion awareness and prevention to make money.
"If there's any proof the product does work, I'll be the first one to sign a testimonial on their website," she said.
Cardinal Newman, a well-funded private school, can afford to staff a certified athletic trainer and a orthopedic doctor at each game in addition to purchasing Guardian Caps. Comstock said most high schools and youth leagues should put their money toward hiring a certified athletic trainer to provide professional-grade injury prevention and management.
Hanson said his company gave away 600 caps last football season and asked for feedback. He said no concussions were reported. He said they recently signed a contract with a California research company that plans to do a field study.
"We've had two years of research," Hanson said. "I don't know what else we can do to convince people. We have this product we're passionate about. We couldn't wait for another study to come out."
Evan Peck, a sports medicine physician at West Palm Beach's Cleveland Clinic, shared Comstock's concern that the cap may be more snake oil than solution.
"Any device on the outside of a helmet doesn't necessarily keep the brain protected," said Peck, who oversees Palm Beach County's pilot program for concussion baseline testing of high school football players. He also worries players wearing extra protection in practice will play more aggressively during games.
"They haven't been well-studied," Peck said. "There's a lot of mixed literature, a lot of manufacturer-funded studies and a lot of marketing."
Walsh was sold. He said the jury is out on the rain-readiness of the caps, but he reports no concussions so far this fall. In past years, he said, "we would have had one by now."
He knows the caps won't stop concussions entirely, but believes he's being proactive.
"In a game, things are going to happen," Walsh said. "That's part of the sport. To practice hard and cut down on the possibility of losing a student for a week because you're practicing hard, we'll take that."