The football helmet has received more attention than any single piece of athletic equipment in sports, and as a result manufacturers are under tremendous scrutiny and pressure.

Six of the 13 manufacturers producing helmets several years ago are no longer making the product; several others have gone bankrupt.

Sales of football helmets in 1976 totaled about $10 million, but product liability lawsuits against industry sought damages totaling $110 million, according to Sporting Goods Dealers magazine.

In 1976 there were an estimated 45,000 concussions suffered by players on organized football teams. Twelve high school football players died of head injuries.

As a result, the Consumer Product Safety Commission decided that it would study such things as the level and frequency of impact involved in the use of football helmets.The object if to find out if there needs to be mandatory standards for the football helmet industry.

The equipment business was stunned in 1976 when Greg Stead, a Miami, Fla., high school football player was awarded $5.3 million in damages against Riddell, Inc., one of the nation's top helmet manufacturers.

Stead's attorneys claimed that his face mask acted as a lever when it met the knee of the ball carrier, forcing the rear edge of the helmet into Stead's neck and damaging his spinal cord. Since then, numerous suits have been filed on allegations of defective or poorly designed helmets.

Some experts argue that the back rim of the helmet, designed to protect the head, may injure the neck leading to paralyzing spinal damage as in Stead's case.

Others claim that the helmet protects the brain, but not the neck. Ray Shenberg of Rawlings Sporting Goods, however, says that "if the helmet was designed to fully protect the neck region, a player wouldn't even be able to move."

Other observers note that players' tactics, not the helmets, cause most injuries.

Alarmingly, there are some, like Dr. James Garrick, medical advisor to the joint safety committee of the NFL and NFL Players Association, who think the helmet may be too effective.

"It can give the player wearing it a false sense of security and sometimes causes him to use it as a weapon," he said.

There are rules in high school and college about using the helmet as a weapon, but the practice still exists.

"Football helmets are a lot like cars," said Redskin equipment manager Tommy McVean. "There are a number of top grade ones. Which one a guy uses just depends on his taste. If a guy is used to wearing a certain type of helmet, I just make sure he has the latest model of it."

When McVean first started working, all of the players wore suspension helmets, which was like a leather net inside the helmet fitting snugly around the head, but suspended from the shell of the helmet. It absorts shock well, but the players' foreheads often got cut up from the slippage. Then they went to a padded helmet without suspension, but too many players ended up with headaches. Now the in thing, the supposed'sbest possible helmet, is the air-or waterfilled helmet.

There are a number of padded envelope-like pouches insidethe helmet and they are filled with various amounts of water or air to fit the player. With these helmets, the shock from contact is absorbed around the entire helmet and not just at the point of impact.

"There is nothing wrong with a suspension helmet," McVean says. "You just have to be sure it fits right. The thing about helmets is that sometimes the ones that are most comfortable aren't the ones that are filled right. Whenever anyone buys a helmet he should make sure that someone who knows what is doing fits him for it."

Most of these $7.95 model department store helmets do not offer sufficient protection, many experts agree. A look inside at the foam rubber padding or the stringy suspension makes this fact obvious.

Helmets that are designed, equipped and properly fitted for professional players sometimes fail to give sufficient protection. So it is not hard to imagine the dangers involved with helmets that are not even fitted right.

The chin strap is another important part of the helmet. It is a rule now in every level of football that every player have his chin strap snapped for every play.

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