Udall Seeks Investigation of Misleading Football Helmet Safety Claims
WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Tom Udall, D-NM, today requested that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigate false and misleading concussion safety claims in advertising for football helmets, specifically those sold for use by young children. The FTC enforces laws to protect consumers, including those related to deceptive advertising and marketing practices that raise health and safety concerns.
"I am concerned for our young football players and their safety. I hope football helmet makers improve their products to address concussion risks," Udall said. "It is simply unacceptable for sports equipment companies to falsely advertize their products to athletes, coaches and parents with claims of providing a level of safety that does not yet exist."
Sports are the second leading cause of traumatic brain injury for people who are 15- to 24-years-old, behind only motor vehicle crashes. Every year American athletes suffer up to an estimated 3.8 million sports-related concussions, of which 300,000 result in loss of consciousness. More than one million American high school students play football, including nearly 8,000 high school students in New Mexico.
Although football helmet safety technology has drastically improved since the days of leather helmets, today's helmet safety standards may not be informed by current understanding of concussion risks. For example, the current industry standard primarily protects against serious injury from a severe, direct blow. However, it does not address the risk of a concussion caused by less severe impacts or by rotational acceleration resulting from hits that spin the head and brain. The standard for reconditioning used football helmets also does not specify how often old helmets must be recertified.
Several helmet manufacturers advertise helmets as built with "concussion reduction technology" or "designed with the intent to reduce concussions." However, leading experts in the field of football helmet safety question concussion safety claims made by some helmet makers. Udall's letter points to specific advertising examples and practices that are likely to mislead parents and coaches of young football players.
Riddell, a leading helmet maker that supplies the official helmet to the National Football League (NFL), claims that independent research demonstrates its newer design helmets reduce the risk of concussion by 31 percent. Yet this claim is based on a single study -- paid for by Riddell and co-authored by a Riddell employee -- that examined just 136 high school football players who experienced concussions. Riddell does not disclose these facts in its marketing, and the company similarly advertises helmets for young children which were not tested in the study.
Udall's letter also cites the example of a Schutt Sports online video advertisement that supposedly demonstrates the protection of their new helmet designs compared to other helmets by dropping a bowling ball onto a watermelon wrapped in Schutt padding and repeating the same test with other foam padding. This video and other online advertisements cited in Udall's letter could violate the FTC's advertising substantiation standard and Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.
New Mexico is one of nine states that has adopted a sports concussion law to help prevent brain injuries to student athletes. The state law requires that coaches receive awareness training and that any student athlete who suffers a concussion stay on the sidelines for at least one week and until a medical professional approves their return to play. Football has the highest incidence of concussions, which also occur less frequently in other sports such as baseball and soccer.
Udall, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, helps oversee the work of the FTC as part of his duties as a member of the committee's Consumer Protection Subcommittee. Late last year, Udall asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to investigate the adequacy of voluntary helmet safety standards for addressing concussion risks to football players, especially high school and younger athletes.
The full text of the letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz is included below:
The Honorable Jon Leibowitz
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20580
Dear Chairman Leibowitz,
I am writing to request that the Federal Trade Commission investigate misleading safety claims and deceptive practices related to the sale of new helmets and the reconditioning of used football helmets.
Every year, more than one million high school athletes put on their gear and take to the gridiron-including about 8,000 in my home state of New Mexico. Football is a wonderful, uniquely American tradition. But football is a contact sport, and thousands of student athletes are injured every year. Many of those injuries are concussions.
For young people between 15 and 24 years old, playing sports is the second-leading cause of traumatic brain injury - second only to motor vehicle crashes. Although football is a contact sport that will always involve some risk, safety equipment can help reduce injuries. Athletes, coaches, and parents today are increasingly aware of the danger of concussion, and this awareness influences decisions about buying new and reconditioned football helmets. Athletes who have already suffered a concussion-as well as their coaches and parents-may be particularly susceptible to misleading marketing claims about helmet safety.
That is why I am concerned about potential unfair and deceptive practices related to the sale of football helmets, especially those advertised for children's use. First, the voluntary industry standard for football helmets does not specifically address concussion prevention or reduction. Second, companies that sell new helmets appear to be using misleading advertising claims about the safety and performance of their products in terms of reducing the risk of concussion. Third, some helmet reconditioning companies may be falsely selling used helmets as meeting an industry safety standard. Such safety claims could constitute unfair and deceptive practices in violation of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.
Several helmet manufacturers advertise helmets as built with "concussion reduction technology" or "designed with the intent to reduce concussions." These helmets are also marketed as meeting the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) voluntary industry standard for football helmets. However, this football helmet standard does not specifically address concussion risks. Nor does the NOCSAE voluntary standard distinguish between helmets designed for professional, college, high school, and younger football players. One expert in the field of sports concussion and football helmets publicly expressed skepticism of safety claims used in helmet marketing. Dr. Robert Cantu, who participates in the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee as well as the NOCSAE helmet standards development process, stated that today's football helmets "would need to be four times better to be able to [protect against concussion]." Moreover, a consumer who later inspects a helmet may not be able to read all the product's additional warning labels since some are obscured from view underneath padding inside the helmet. While newer helmet designs probably provide a higher level of safety compared to traditional helmets, there is no industry standard or other means for the consumer to evaluate safety claims about concussion.
I am even more troubled by misleading marketing claims by Riddell, a leading helmet maker that supplies the official helmet to the National Football League (NFL). The Riddell website's online helmet store prominently claims that:
Research shows a 31% reduction in the risk of concussion in players wearing a Riddell Revolution football helmet when compared to traditional helmets* Designed for performance with Revolution Concussion Reduction Technology built-In. *Neurosurgery, February 2006, Vol. 58, No. 2.
Riddell expands on this in its online description of a helmet sold specifically for junior high school and younger athletes. The company's online store markets the "Revolution Youth Helmet" for children with the claim that:
... After an extensive long-term study by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center was published in the February 2006 issue of Neurosurgery. The results were impressive: research shows a 31% reduction in the risk of concussion in players wearing a Riddell Revolution football helmet when compared to traditional helmets.*
*NEUROSURGERY, FEBRUARY 2006, VOL. 58, NO. 2
These prominently displayed claims citing a prestigious medical institution and scientific journal give the overall impression that these helmets provide a significant safety improvement over other helmets and that this is strongly supported by extensive research. Yet there is actually very little scientific evidence to support the claim that Riddell's Revolution helmets reduce the risk of concussion by 31 percent.
In fact, the peer-reviewed article used to justify such advertising is based on a single study of high school football players using brand new Riddell Revolution helmets compared with players wearing used and reconditioned helmets. Scientists who commented on the article cautioned against drawing broad conclusions from one study that compared the performance of new helmets with used headgear and that examined just 136 high school players who experienced concussions. Riddell also provided a grant to underwrite the study, and Riddell's vice president of research and development was one of the Neurosurgery article authors. An official commenter highlighted the authors' conflicts of interest and bluntly stated that the study's conclusions "should be interpreted accordingly."
Moreover, the 2006 study of high school football players did not specifically test the performance of the Riddell Revolution Youth helmet worn by younger children. Since concussion risk may differ depending on the age group and skill level of players, the results of a single study of high school football players may not be valid for younger children, especially if they wear a different helmet not used in the study. That the youth helmet was not actually tested in the scientific study is probably a significant omission that could lead to a false belief about the real and relative safety of this children's football helmet. The Commission should thus review whether such safety claims for youth helmets in particular meet a reasonable advertising substantiation standard.
I am also concerned about misleading safety claims used in online video advertisements for helmets. For example, the YouTube video "Riddell: The Pinnacle of Protection and Performance," prominently advertises the claim of a 31 percent reduction in risk of concussion with images of helmet testing, narration, and product testimonials. While displaying pictures of the 2006 Neurosurgery article, a Riddell marketing director explains that the company needs "to communicate what third-party science has tested and published." A narrator continues that this "straight-shooting [by Riddell] grants a peace of mind that is a great benefit to all football participants, especially to the parents and coaches of young players." This video also includes product testimonials from unidentified youth football players, their coaches, and a mother who states that safety was her "biggest concern" when choosing a helmet for her son.
Schutt Sports also has a series of YouTube videos that advertise the safety protection of their new helmet designs compared to other helmets by, among other things, dropping a bowling ball onto a watermelon wrapped in Schutt TPU padding and repeating the same test with traditional foam padding. Although the CEO of Schutt Sports has stated that these videos are meant to be parodies, the advertisements may still convey false impressions of the safety provided by the Schutt helmet padding. Furthermore, children football players concerned about concussion could be susceptible to misleading safety claims in online video advertisements. A fourteen year old, for example, posted a response to the watermelon test video asking which helmet to buy since his mother will not let him ever play football again if he suffers a concussion.
In addition to investigating misleading safety claims for new football helmets, the Commission should also look into potential false and deceptive practices related to the reconditioning of used helmets. Federal criminal probes and an investigation by the New York Times have highlighted appalling safety lapses and shoddy work by some helmet reconditioners. Used helmets do not have to be independently tested before being sold with a mark stating that the helmet is "recertified" as meeting the NOCSAE standard. Unlike organizations that certify helmets for other sports, NOCSAE and the National Athletic Equipment Reconditioning Association (NAERA) do not conduct market surveillance or follow up testing of helmets to ensure compliance with their certifications. Moreover, there is no standard for how often used helmets must be recertified. Such potentially dangerous used helmets are commonly worn by players at all levels of football, including youth and school sports leagues.
Given the seriousness of concussion risk and the potential for real injury to children, I urge the Commission to take appropriate action if any football helmet manufacturer or reconditioner is engaging in any false and deceptive practice.
Thank you for your consideration and reply. I look forward to working with you on this important consumer protection issue.
United States Senator