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Football helmet warnings are tougher, but may not change behavior

As high school and college football players in Orange County and throughout the country start practicing for the upcoming season, the issue of safety is once again at the forefront of many conversations. An increasing cause of concern and litigation has been the incidence of brain injury caused by playing football.

While advances in helmet construction have nearly eliminated skull fractures, they have had far less success in preventing concussions and other head injuries. Helmet manufacturers have placed strong warnings on their products. While these are necessary for legal reasons, their effectiveness is another matter.

Schutt Sports, a leading football helmet maker, has even been criticized for its very strong warning. In addition to the traditional caution that no helmet can protect from head and neck injury, paralysis, or death, it goes a step further. It says that to avoid the risk of such injuries, you should not play football.

Riddell, the largest manufacturer of helmets in the country and the official helmet manufacturer for the National Football League (NFL), includes the first part of the warning. However, it does not suggest that players give up the sport.

The failure of helmet manufacturers to provide adequate warning has been at the center of high-profile lawsuits in recent years. A group of retired professional players filed a suit claiming that for decades the NFL and Riddell hid evidence about the dangers of repeated head trauma. A jury recently found Riddell liable for not adequately warning players about the dangers of potential head trauma. The company was ordered to pay over $3 million in damages to a young Colorado man who sustained a head injury playing high school football.

Those involved in crafting the warning language acknowledge that they have a limited effect on behavior. They say it is up to coaches, referees, and parents to prevent players from using them improperly, such as to head-butt another player.

Some attorneys who represent injured players say that helmet manufacturers send mixed messages. They encourage people to buy their helmets, but then say that because they have included this warning language, if a player suffers a head injury, the company has no liability. Anyone who has suffered a brain or other head injury while playing a sport should consult an attorney who specializes in this type of litigation to help determine whether anyone can and should be held liable.

Source: The New York Times, "Warning Labels on Helmets Combat Injury and Liability" Ken Belson, Aug. 04, 2013

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