Football and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy: Can New Helmet Technology Ever Completely Eliminate the Risk?

Last month, researchers at Boston University announced that former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez suffered from advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that has been identified post-mortem in the brains of professional football players other professional athletes with histories of multiple head injuries. Of the former NFL players who are now known to have had the condition, most were in retirement age and had developed the characteristic memory and behavioral problems over a period of several years. Hernandez, who committed suicide after being sentenced in 2015 to life in prison without parole, was just 27 years old at the time of his death. Hernandez's daughter has filed a new lawsuit against the NFL and helmet manufacturer Riddell, Inc.

The discovery of such advanced CTE in an individual as young as Hernandez has reinvigorated discussions about head injuries in football and other professional sports. In response, the NFL has adopted new policies and measures to both reduce the risk of concussions and improve player outcomes once concussions have occurred. One such initiative is the development and testing of a new helmet design. However, many have suggested that the advent of the hard-shelled helmet itself led to an increase in aggressive gameplay compared to football’s early days of leather helmets. And, as one recent commentary discusses, helmet manufacturers have been found liable for misrepresenting or exaggerating the degree to which helmets can reduce the risk of concussions.

Can a safety device, such as a football helmet, ever make the game 100% safe? And is it reasonable for anyone, from professional athletes to parents of youth football players, to have such high expectations? Ohio Revised Code § 2307.75(F) states that a product is not defective in design if “a practical and technically feasible alternative design or formulation was not available that would have prevented the harm” for which the claimant seeks to recover “without substantially impairing the usefulness or intended purpose of the product.” Thus, the design of football helmets requires a careful balancing of available safety technology against other design considerations, such as weight and vision obstructions, that affect their intended use. Although it is unlikely that football helmets will ever be able to completely eliminate head injuries from football, the NFL’s exploration of alternative helmet designs is an important step in the right direction.