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Head Smarts: Do Warnings on Football Helmets Eliminate Liability for Injuries?

The last five years have brought a great degree of scrutiny to the sport of football. Although it is one of the most beloved activities in the country, the truth about the risks associated with football can no longer be suppressed. Lawsuits against leagues, coaches and even equipment manufacturers have increased, raising the question of whether the sport is even work the risk of injury at all. It has never been a secret that football is a high-contact sport, like hockey and lacrosse, but former players and their families are questioning whether the authorities in the sport could do more to protect the players from head and back injuries.

The most obvious protection against injuries in such a high-contact sport is by using protective gear. Safety pads and helmets are a normal part of football in any level or league but even makers of protective gear need to protect themselves from the blame for injuries sustained while using their products. Football helmet manufacturers have designed their warning labels specifically to remind their consumers that football's risks of head and back injuries are unavoidable, even when using their product. One of the most popular Helmet makers, Schutt Sports, is almost painfully honest in the label included on the back of their helmets, reminding players "No helmet system can protect you from serious brain and/or neck injuries including paralysis or death. To avoid these risks, do not engage in the sport of football."

This type of warning seems strangely contradictory to many. Advocates of increased regulation in the sport are claiming that manufacturers are caught in a conflict of interest. These companies claim that their objective is to provide protection for football players and yet, they seek to please football organizations because without their support, they would have no business. Critics of the sport as it currently stands see such marketing as an attempt to cover their own liability for injuries.

Perhaps the answer to such criticisms is this: total prevention of injuries in a high-contact sport is impossible – and that is the stance of most helmet makers in the sport of football as well as hockey and lacrosse. In fact, improvements in the design and fitting of football helmets over time have succeeded in almost completely eliminating skull fractures. While the next goal for the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (Nocsae) is to address the issue of concussions, this injury may prove more difficult because of its internal nature. Concussions are sustained when the brain is shaken within the skull because of sudden impact or blunt force trauma. Internal injuries such as concussions are difficult to combat because properly fitted and designed helmets can only do so much absorbing the shock of impacts, which is known to cause concussions. Regardless of this obstacle, Nocsae is working with the top helmet makers in improving its approach to the concern of brain injuries, remaining realistic in its challenges and yet determined to do everything it can to protect players.

In response to the criticisms received by helmet makers, legal representatives for the companies have drawn attention back to the inescapable responsibility of the players themselves. These warnings that have drawn so much attention are only seeking to remind players and viewers that football is an inherently dangerous sport by its very nature and the only way to completely eliminate the risk of sustaining those injuries is to abstain from the sport altogether. Even if helmet makers, coaches and sport regulators do everything to fulfill their own duty to protect players, there will still be a risk of injury and the player is assumed to be aware of that risk.

In conclusion, the answer to whether such blunt warning labels will succeed in freeing companies from liability for injuries sustained while wearing their helmets is not black and white. There are still those who question the motives of such marketing tactics, claiming that they are only written thusly to encourage reckless play while escaping liability for injuries from playing recklessly. Football is an exciting sport and unless the game is completely redesigned, it will always involve contact between players and that means that someone can always get hurt. The important thing to remember in the midst of an issue that involves so many influential entities is that each party has their own degree of responsibility, from the National Football League all the way down to the parents of a little boy entering pee-wee football for the first time. The goal is to protect players as much as realistically possible and the only way that can be achieved without eliminating such a loved sport is if each party fulfills its duty to exercise care, discernment and common sense.