Riddell, the legendary sports equipment brand and official NFL helmet maker, hasn't had the best 2013. The ongoing NFL concussion scandal placed the company under an unwanted spotlight when players sued the football league; Riddell is a codefendant in that lawsuit, which alleges (among other things) that Riddell failed to warn players that their helmets would not protect them against concussions. In late October, Riddell received even more bad news: the NFL decided to end its official helmet deal with the company, altering a relationship that has been in place since 1989. Now Riddell is trying a new tactic in its attempt to rebuild goodwill with consumers with a head-impact monitoring system for football teams aimed primarily at the high-school and college markets.
The Riddell InSite, which hit the market in March and was formally unveiled at an October press event in New York, is an integrated monitoring system which Riddell says “Provides sideline staff with head-impact data from players while they’re on the field and uses a telemetry system to determine potential overexposure to players' heads.” Although Riddell stresses that the system is not a diagnostic tool, the subtext at the October press event was clear: The helmets are a tool designed to help prevent on-field head trauma and allay the fears of parents of young players. According to Riddell's marketing materials, the product “allows coaches to identify impact exposure activities that result in higher player risk, alerts the sideline to significant single or multiple head impacts, and alerts coaches to players who may need further training on proper hitting technique to reduce risk of injuries.” The system is comprised of inserts and alert monitors based on technology developed by engineering firm Simbex, which integrated approximately two million impact data points collected by other sensor-filled Riddell products since 2003.
But while many high schools and colleges would love to use the InSite system, there's one big challenge: Acquiring InSite for a team is expensive. The monitor unit used by sideline staff—which can accommodate up to 150 players—costs $200, and the units worn by each individual player (basically floppy, sensor-filled helmet inserts) cost $150 apiece. This high price puts InSite largely out of grasp of young players, though the InSite kit is currently used by approximately a dozen schools in the Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego areas.
Meanwhile, school and youth leagues which might otherwise be interested in the inserts could be turned off by the fact that Riddell's product does not allow coaches, trainers, or medical staff to set their own impact thresholds, and is not customizable for each player's size, height, or weight. Instead, InSite's thresholds are based upon the position being played, and whether the player is rated as playing at a youth, high-school, or college level of experience.
So how is InSite being used? According to Riddell senior vice president of research and player development Thad Ide, “While coaches are certainly involved in the purchase decision, typically the athletic trainers and medical staff are the ones operating InSite on the sideline. Based on the feedback we’ve received, players that are wearing InSite-equipped helmets are receiving alerts and being evaluated based on their concussion-management protocol. We’re pleased with the initial reception of the technology and glad that it’s embraced by football staff and players as additional information that they wouldn’t have had before.”
It's virtually impossible to build a concussion-proof helmet. While the NFL and youth tackle football programs are in the midst of a public relations firestorm about injuries, there's a very real science to designing football helmets. As Co.Design's Mark Wilson wrote back in January, there's almost no way to design a concussion-proof helmet . . . and any possible helmets-of-the-future would create new injury risks. Although the odds of the NFL switching to flag football are unlikely, high-school programs are likely to deal with new challenges as parents and scared-of-liability administrators change the contours of the game.
But in the meantime, Riddell will continue to be one of the top vendors of sports equipment to high-school and college football teams—NFL deal or no NFL deal. Technology will continue to be part of the equation, and the crucial balance between maintaining the game's traditions and adjusting to new health knowledge will have to be struck.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Thad Ide's last name.