As health and public safety continues to be a priority in athletics, UNC is continuously experimenting with new methods to prevent severe head trauma events across all sports. However, with the risk of concussion being the highest in college football, particular attention has been paid to the gridiron.
Among the newest developments in football's concussion safety measures is the Guardian Cap, a soft, padded covering that goes on the outside of the regular helmet.
The Guardian Cap operates like an air bag, absorbing the contact of each hit and serving as a barrier between the player and impact, according to Guardian Sports, the company that produces the caps. The goal of wearing the caps is to reduce the risk of severe brain and spinal cord injuries. They have been featured at NFL training camps throughout the summer, and the North Carolina football team also followed suit.
Despite the advertised benefits, there are also several drawbacks to the new contraption. With their eye-catching appearance and bulky nature, many players elected not to wear them.
“I don’t really want to wear one,” graduate defensive linemen Raymond Vohasek said. “I hear they’re heavy, so I’m just going to stick to what I know.”
However, the discomforting nature of the cap is not the only shortcoming the new safety product faces. Experts believe the Guardian Cap may not even work to prevent concussions.
“I was somewhat surprised when I saw the caps showing up on the market and being promoted in spring ball last year,” Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related TBI Research Center, said.
Guskiewicz said he believes there will not be a reduction in concussions on the practice field as a result of the Guardian Caps.
“The problem is the brain is always still going to move around inside the skull when the helmet is being worn,” he said. “I’m not convinced that any sort of exterior covering is going to prevent that movement. Research has shown that.”
Not only did Guskiewicz say he believed the helmet would not prevent concussions, he also said the caps could actually have negative effects.
“Helmets are made to have a surface that does not create friction. One of the concerns with the use of external padding to the helmet is that it creates this friction that might predispose players to a spine injury,” Guskiewicz said.
Guskiewicz also said there is concern the Guardian Caps might give players a false sense of security.
For these reasons, he said he has never been a proponent of the helmet caps. However, he is impressed with the role UNC is playing when it comes to collegiate concussion research.
“We convinced other schools around the country to adopt a concussion baseline testing program … the NCAA then mandated it. We also helped build the concussion protocol for the NFL,” Guskiewicz said.
Guskiewicz presented to the NFL’s competition committee in 2010 and recommended moving the kickoff line up from the 30 yard line to the 35 yard line. He also said he recommended they remove the running start from the kickoff.
As a result of the research by Guskiewicz and the University, the NFL adopted these recommended rule changes and reaped major benefits because of it. He added that after implementing similar rules in 2012, the NCAA saw a 50 percent reduction in the number of concussions on kickoffs.
Like the NFL, changes are made each season across the college football landscape in pursuit of a safer game that reduces the chance of a major head or neck injury.
“One thing is for certain, UNC is a leader both on and off the field when it comes to concussion research,” Jason Mihalik, co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Center, said.
While the Guardian Cap may not be the solution to football’s concussion epidemic, UNC's research is helping the game inch toward a safer future.
“We want parents of student athletes to know they are coming to the safest atmosphere possible,” Guskiewicz said. “I don’t think it’s ever been safer to play a sport than it is today.”
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