Stefan Duma could not have imagined the timing. In the two weeks since he and his Virginia Tech colleagues released their latest football helmet safety ratings, the sport's concussion epidemic has returned to the fore.
A Super Bowl-winning quarterback said he doesn't want his sons to play football; a Hall of Fame receiver joined a lawsuit that accuses the NFL of failing to protect players against long-term brain injury; an iconic linebacker committed suicide, fueling speculation that his demise was related to repeated concussions.
But while no amount of protection will eliminate head trauma among ever bigger, faster and stronger athletes, the research Duma's team is conducting could help curb the crisis.
"It's all about risk-reduction," said Duma, who heads the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences in Blacksburg. "Using the automobile analogy, even in a five-star vehicle, people still crash in those and they still die. But you have a much lower risk than if you were in a poorer-performing car.
"So even in the best equipment and the best helmet, and we say this on all our material, you can still have a head injury. You can still have a concussion. But if you compare the worst helmets and the best helmets, there's a huge difference in your risk of getting a concussion. And if you extrapolate that over four years of college, you're going to cut the number of concussions down dramatically by switching to the better helmets, the four- and five-star helmets."
This is Duma's second year of rating helmets. He and his researchers have tested 15 adult models using more than 2,000 lab tests. Those tests were developed from data collected from sensors placed in Virginia Tech helmets for the past nine seasons.
The ratings are available on the school's website, and while I lack the scientific and engineering intelligence to judge the research methodology and conclusions, I have to believe that Duma's project is a worthy step toward developing ideal helmets.
Heaven knows we need them, for despite its popularity and marketing genius, football, especially the NFL, appears to have reached a tipping point.
There's the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal. There are three lawsuits filed by more than 250 former players, including Washington Redskins Hall of Fame receiver Art Monk. There are troubling suicides, most recently by former San Diego Chargers great Junior Seau.
The issue gained further traction when Kurt Warner, who quarterbacked the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl victory, told radio host Dan Patrick that he would prefer that his two sons not play football.
Though surely Warner is not alone, it's difficult to imagine football vanishing. But if the game's caretakers aren't diligent, it could join boxing, once a mainstream sport, on the fringes.
Monitoring and treatment of concussions must improve, but so, too, must equipment. And that's where Duma comes in.
He said he plans to continue annual ratings and to test all new helmet models. The three lowest-rated helmets from 2011 no longer are on the market, a sign that someone is paying attention.
"The data we collect from our football team … allows us to understand how many times the players are hit and in what direction and what severity," Duma said. "Then we use that exposure in our laboratory to evaluate the individual helmets.
"We know than an average varsity player is going to get about 1,000 impacts per year. And we know how many are going to be to the front, the side, the back and the top. And we know how hard they're going to be. We replicate those hits in our laboratory through a series of 120 different drop tests for each helmet type."
Two changes are coming to Duma's project. First, next year's testing will add rotational acceleration (think nodding your head) to the linear component already studied. Second, accelerometers will be placed in the helmets of 300 youth players in Blacksburg and Winston-Salem, the first phase of developing ratings for youth helmets.
The more protected young football players are, the less vulnerable they'll be in college and the pros. For a first concussion often starts a nasty cycle.
"I think if you look at any consumer product, people are much more informed these days," Duma said, "whether it's buying a vehicle or buying a helmet. With the Internet and available information, consumers are much more interested in the performance and quality of a product before they go buy it."
As Duma's research evolves, and as helmets improve, perhaps the fears of parents such as Warner will ease.
"I wonder what my future will be like after a long career playing this game, and my thoughts toward my kids playing are reflective of that," Warner wrote on his blog after the Patrick interview. "Unfortunately, I don't know if I will ever be able to get past those things. Only time will tell. …
"And as I weigh all the tremendous benefits and joys of playing, it is difficult for me to feel they outweigh the chances/risks that go with them, in regards to my children."
David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
For more on the ratings, visit vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2012/05/050112-engineering-twohelmetsadded.html