"It helps with the ringing in my ears." James Harrison was on the phone, explaining that he collided with other human beings with such ferocity that his ears would ring for hours after games. He was worried about this.
Between sentences he was breathing heavily, kind of snarling into the phone just like he had really and truly sprung to life from an Ed Sabol napkin sketch. This was just after the 2011 season, deep into the NFL's bizarre crusade against headshot artists, and Harrison had called me to talk about concussions.
The ringing and the headaches, not to mention more existential crises like the uptick in malfunctioning NFL pensioners driven to self-immolation, started to make Harrison worry about his own cranium. So midway through the 2011 season, Harrison and a dozen other Pittsburgh Steelers players, including Troy Polamalu, retrofitted their helmets with military-grade Kevlar.
When Harrison gave Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy a mind-eraser in Week 14, he did so with the crown of his Kevlar-reinforced helmet. The work was done by Philadelphia-based Unequal Technologies, which had been making inroads in NFL circles since the Dallas Cowboys turned to the company to protect Tony Romo's cracked ribs with a Kevlar flak-jacket earlier in the season.
Harrison was giddy with the results. "I'm convinced this stuff works," he said. "I just don't have the same head pain."
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According to Unequal CEO Rob Vito, the company was allowed to go in to the Steelers facility and install the padding after multiple conversations with NFL lawyers. The lawyers eventually decided that the players had the right to modify the helmets, so long as the players accepted that the helmet manufacturer's warranty against a skull-fracture was null and void.
Dr. Henry Feuer, a member of the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee, confirmed to me that the league had not conducted any independent tests on the effects of Kevlar helmets.
Stunned, I called biomedical engineering expert Richard M. Greenwald at Dartmouth University and asked him what he thought of Kevlar helmets. He hadn't.
"You're telling me that NFL players are installing Kevlar inside their helmets?" he said, dryly apoplectic.
"These guys are changing the fundamental nature of the helmet. Does Riddell know about this? You gotta talk to someone over there."
I had tried for weeks. They stonewalled with hilariously PR-ish e-mails about their engineers being "so swamped."
"Why would anyone … do that?"
That's what I had called Greenwald to find out.
"I can't think of a single reason why installing Kevlar would protect the brain in a collision," he said. "It's the egg-yolk-inside-the-shell analogy. Making the shell stronger will still scramble the yolk."
Roger Goodell loves talking about helmets. Oh, what the future might hold for helmets. Inventions, breakthroughs, open-source innovation!
This spring, mere days before he would restate the league's intention to expand to an 18-game regular season, Roger Goodell stood at a podium in New York City and announced the NFL's new $60 million partnership with General Electric and Under Armour.
Together, the conglomerates will tackle concussion-safety science over the next five years. It sounds pretty serious, until you realize that $60 million represents 0.6 per cent of the NFL's annual revenue. The farce of the arithmetic is enough, but since we're here, please also remember that this concussion research funding was a concession won by the NFLPA during the 2011 lockout.
Up to $10 million of these funds will go toward the development of "improved" helmet technology. What does that mean? Goodell told the AP that he hopes for "lighter" helmets that are "less of a weapon."
A few lofty media types, people like Gregg Easterbrook and Peter King, believe that Goodell is genuinely trying his best to protect players from head trauma, and that he's been unfairly maligned by know-nothings on sites like the one you're reading, which are written by people who don't understand the nobility of his intentions, and the purity of his heart.
Maybe they're right. Maybe Goodell really is the good soldier trying to make up for decades of scientific filibustering, negligence and booming Sam Spence propagandizing. After all, in the Tagliabue era, the chairman of the NFL’s disgraced concussion committee was a rheumatologist who received his medical degree in Mexico.
If we're being honest, too, we're all a bit complicit in this. Who among us—from the Dorito-snarfing lunkheads to the most sensitive, New Yorker-reading little snowflakes—didn't get goosebumps watching Jack Lambert belly-to-back-suplex some jobber into an early grave to the sounds of "Duel in the Dust"? While you snarf chips in a quiet moral quandary, Goodell, bless his heart, is doing something.
And yet. And yet. When Goodell stood at the podium in New York City, waving his sad, serious little power-thumb, flanked by monitors displaying the familiar swirly corporate responsibility graphics of minigarchies the world over, it was clear that the NFL had once again spun violence into a business opportunity.
Take this to the bank: two years from now, Riddell or Under Armour or Schutt will have developed some snake oil, some magical bit of concussion-reduction technology. The helmet will cost $300 and football stage parents all over the country will rush to buy it for their tyrannical lil' Manziels.
In the near future, Goodell will have his lighter helmet. He'll hold it aloft at a press conference and declare not victory, but something more sinister. Progress!
Only the helmet will do nothing to protect the brain from rotational acceleration, the unstoppable force of physics inherent in every football tackle. In fact, the helmet will do as much to protect against rotational forces as leatherhead helmets, according to research by the Cleveland Clinic. While the study was shocking when it was released in 2011 and ran counter to the concussion-reduction claims of helmet manufacturers, it merely confirmed what was already known to the NFL and Riddell since 2000.
Court documents made public during a Colorado lawsuit revealed that Biokinetics, a Canadian-based biomechanics firm hired by the NFL, sent Riddell a report in 2000 showing that no football helmet, no matter how revolutionary, could prevent concussions.
The report concluded that even a helmet that passed the NOCSAE industry safety standard for protection against skull fractures and other severe head injuries could leave a player with a 95 per cent likelihood of receiving a concussion from a strong enough blow.
Riddell ignored the initial report, then ignored subsequent findings by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who field-tested the helmet on high school athletes, and forged ahead touting that the Revolution helmet offered a 31-per cent reduction in the likelihood of a concussion. By 2016, what will that number be? Sixty per cent? One hundred and thirty one per cent? It’s all relative—and all equally meaningless.
As one internationally renowned neurologist told me, on the condition of anonymity, "There will never be a helmet that protects against concussions because of the nature of the human brain. But the NFL will never admit that, because it gives away the game. And if you start saying things they don't like, they'll come after you very hard."
Goodell will talk about helmets until your soft yellow studio lights fucking explode, for the same reason he'll let it leak that he has nightmares about a player dying on the field: because it's a dangerous, sexy narrative the NFL can repackage and sell. In Goodell’s fever dream, it's not the cumulative wear-and-tear on the brain caused by thousands of depressing, routine collisions, as most neurologists fear. It's the car crashes! Goodell wants—needs—you and Joey Wingding and Peter King and everybody to believe that all we need to solve this concussion crisis are better seat belts and less aggressive drivers.
Just, if you would be so kind, forget about the time a weaponized James Harrison gored Colt McCoy into oblivion. And definitely forget that there were no independent neurologists on the sideline when it happened.
Please forget that McCoy was writhing on the ground and grabbing his head on national television. Please forget that McCoy went back in the game a few plays later. And, holy hell, please forget that the next day he couldn't remember the end of the game.
Above all, your honor, please forget that Harrison had military-grade Kevlar in his helmet.
At the end of my bizarre conversation with Harrison, he said something that I won't forget in 100 years. I asked him about the heartbreaking suicide of Dave Duerson, and if it scared him. He paused for so long that I thought he'd hung up on me. Then I heard his heavy breath on the other end.
"I mean, look," he said, trailing off again. "To be honest with you, we're all scared. There's not a guy in the league that isn't concerned about this. So we're trying to do anything within our power to protect [ourselves]. You only got one brain."
Here's this destroyer of worlds, this impossible specimen—look upon his works, ye Mighty, and despair—and even he can't snuff out the fear. I pictured him on his couch late at night, his head buried in a throw pillow, ears ringing, frontal lobe on fucking fire.
It was enough to make me feel for him. Then I learned that he's an investor in Unequal Technologies, maker of his miracle helmet.
Everyone's running a con in the concussion-crisis economy, even the beleaguered and exploited cannon fodder. The question is how much longer football fans are going to express outrage—both real and feigned. How much longer will the average fan stomach the doublespeak and smiling obstructionism of NFL suits and the idiotic courage-as-inane-Facebook-quote of the NFL's endless brigade of neurological suicide bombers? How long until we all get nostalgic for the mud and blood and cigarette smoke of Sam Spence? How much longer until, Christ … just fuck it?
Sean Conboy is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Read his full investigation into the use of Kevlar in the NFL for Wired, or check out his new blog on the English Premier League at SI.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanConPM.
Art by Jim Cooke