Are padded helmets for practice the key?

Alabama fans wanted white helmets and that’s almost exactly what they got.

When the Crimson Tide took the field Friday for the first practice of August, a new pale-colored accessory topped the traditional helmets. They’re not so much of a tribute to the past (one that AD Greg Byrne said won’t happen) but a safety measure. 

They’re soft-shell helmet guards and the majority of the players have been wearing them through the first few workouts of August. Created by Guardian Sports in 2010, the caps retail for $59.95 apiece. The company’s website says more than 200 college football programs use them in practices to “reduce impact” of helmet collisions.

Tennessee began using them in 2019 under then-coach Jeremy Pruitt as linemen, linebackers and tight ends wore them in Knoxville. Other schools using the soft shells include Clemson, Arkansas, Georgia, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Florida State, according to the Guardian Sports website.

Alabama’s still in the acclimation phase of preseason practice so they haven’t been doing many contract drills to make much of an assessment, Nick Saban said Sunday.

“But there’s some scientific evidence that those soft shell, impact crowns are effective, have been effective in some NFL teams using them,” Saban said. “So anything that we think can help protect our players is certainly something that we want to do. We don’t have enough information right now to tell you that they’ve made a great impact. But we certainly think that it’s something significant that does protect the players in a better way.”


Alabama linebacker Will Anderson (31) in practice wearing a soft shell helmet cover. (UA photo) Crimson Tide Photos / UA Athletics

The idea, according to Guardian Sports’ website, is to absorb blows to the head and reduce the force delivered to the brain. The site compares the soft shells to the SAFER barrier added to the walls of NASCAR tracks in 2002 to cushion the impacts of violent crashes.

The manufacturer’s website claims the soft-shell helmets reduce g-force “by as much as 33%.” Upon request, the company provided with the 2011 study by Oregon Ballistic Laboratories that supported that number. It shows g-forces were reduced by 31% in blows to the front of the head, 33% on the side and 25% to the back. The study notes data was collected in a lab study, not field research.

“I feel like it’s just for safety protocol,” said Alabama running back Brian Robinson who is wearing the soft shell in practice. “In my opinion, they’re a little heavy. But they do everything they can around here to make sure everyone is staying safe, so I appreciate that addition to just adding those to our helmets just to keep players safe in practice.”

Robinson’s not alone in noting the weight of the add-on.

Another 2017 peer-reviewed study published in JTRM in Kinesiology stated 16.2% of participants wouldn’t recommend the product for reasons including the bulkiness of the shells, expense and product malfunctions. The study found a 40.5% decrease in concussions among teams using the soft shells, though it couldn’t determine how much the extra padding contributed with other factors including improved technique considered.

And a 2015 study by the American Academy of Neurology found linear accelerations were reduced by 11% and angular accelerations went down two percent compared to helmets without the shells. The headline announcing the study that used crash-test dummies read “Helmet add-ons may not lower concussion risk in athletes.”

A disclaimer at the bottom of the Guardian website addresses the concussion topic.

“No helmet, practice apparatus, or helmet pad can prevent or eliminate the risk of concussions or other serious head injuries while playing sports,” it reads. “Researchers have not reached an agreement on how the results of impact absorption tests relate to concussions. No conclusions about a reduction of risk or severity of concussive injury should be drawn from impact absorption tests.”

Alabama offensive lineman Evan Neal is wearing the Guardian soft shell in practice this August after wearing a different cap in practice previously. He said this one is lighter than the previous soft helmet cap he used last year, but he “can’t really tell” how much of an impact it has.

“I’d like to say they’re better than the last ones that we had,” he said.

With time will come more of a sample size with which to evaluate the product in Tuscaloosa. Alabama is set to hold its first full-pad practice Thursday when the contact will increase but the sound of helmets cracking won’t fill the thick August air quite like the past.

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