Aaron Rodgers's Magic Floating Helmet
by David Epstein — Sports Illustrated
May 24, 2011 – 00:00
This hit that Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers laid on Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the NFC championship game nearly changed the course of football history.
Rodgers had suffered two prior concussions during the season. A third would have put him on the bench indefinitely. But, stunningly, Rodgers got up, spat the blood from his lip, and led the Packers to victory over the Bears and then over the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
Compared to the previous collisions that concussed Rodgers, the Peppers hit looked worse. So how, we journalists wondered, did he manage to escape, frontal lobe intact? According to Rodgers, the secret was his new, impact-dampening helmet. "As much as the new helmet feels uncomfortable…I’m really happy I was wearing it on that hit," Rodgers said. Discussion about the concussion-resistant helmet that saved the Packers’ season burned around the Web.
But take a look at the replay. When Peppers connects, Rodgers’s chinstrap slips off his jaw and slides up his face until it covers his mouth. The helmet floats above his head for a moment, before flopping back into place.
That is not how helmets are designed to work. When they are lab tested, the assumption is that they stick to the head. So did Rodgers’s helmet really having anything to do with preventing a concussion? Who knows.
In fact, we know so little about protecting the brain—as it floats delicately in the cerebrospinal fluid—that it isn’t even clear whether a helmet is more protective when used as directed or when worn loosely, which might dissipate some impact energy. So perhaps it was not the well-designed helmet but the poorly designed chinstrap that saved the Packers’ day. Either way, we shouldn’t expect Rodgers’s medical opinion to shed light on the subject.
Mark Kelso, a former Bills safety, has spoken publicly about how the rubber Pro Cap he used over his helmet saved him from concussions. However, he appears to be unaware that the Pro Cap makes the helmet thicker, which creates a longer lever arm between the helmet surface and the neck, increasing the chance of serious neck injury. Asking Kelso or Rodgers for their opinion is fine, but too many helmet stories with medical theses have no medical grounding.
It’s fine to ask a bird an ornithology question, but it’s a good idea to ask an ornithologist as well.