Football is the leading cause of sports-related concussions in the US. The aftereffects of football concussions can lead players to take desperate meaures. Researchers were surprised when they performed impact tests on 21st-century American football helmets and compared them with the “leatherheads” used in the early 20th century.

The researchers subjected the helmets to biomechanical loads that simulated near-concussive and subconcussive head impacts from a variety of directions and found that the protection afforded by vintage leather helmets was often the same or BETTER than that provided by the sophisticated helmets currently in use.

Researcher Adam Bartsch says they were “very surprised. We thought that the lighter leatherhead might reduce force and torque on the neck, but never suspected the head injury metrics would be comparable. We did not appreciate how stiff the modern helmets would be in common, everyday hits." It’s comparable to an SUV versus a sedan–the SUV is bigger, but it’s not tougher–a smaller car with more "give" can be safer in an accident.

The researchers tested 11 commonly used 21st-century varsity helmets and two early 20th-century leather helmets (leatherheads) to compare doses of head impact and risks of injury. Placed on a head form (to simulate the head of the athlete), each helmet was struck by a large adult-size varsity helmet affixed to another head form on a pendulum. Front, oblique front, lateral, oblique rear, and rear head impact tests were conducted. The simulated injuries were designed to mimic impacts of near-concussive and subconcussive head injuries sustained in football games.

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