A former Harvard quarterback tackles NFL concussion woes

The moment he takes the field for Super Bowl 50, one thing will distinguish Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib from the other 91 players on both teams: The three-time Pro Bowl selection will be the only one wearing a helmet made by Xenith.

Cornerback Aqib Talib of the Denver Broncos during their AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots, January 24, 2016.
Helen H. Richardson | The Denver Post | Getty Images
Cornerback Aqib Talib of the Denver Broncos during their AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots, January 24, 2016.

It's not something fans, the media or opponents on the Carolina Panthers are apt to notice, but Talib's equipment choice is a symbol of the growing emphasis — and controversy — over what hundreds of thousands football players, from the NFL to Pop Warner, wear on their heads.

Detroit-based Xenith is one of three companies that produce the vast majority of the 800,000 or so helmets sold in the U.S. in 2015, part of the protective football gear industry that generated almost $355 million in revenues last year, according to BCC Research. "We're the smallest of the three, with about 10 percent of the market, but the fastest growing," claimed CEO Joe Esposito, alluding to competitors Riddell and Schutt Sports.

Privately owned Xenith, which also markets football shoulder pads and face masks, had earnings estimated at nearly $15 million in 2015, though Esposito will only state that they grew about 50 percent over the previous year. Around 70 or so of the roughly 1,700 NFL players don Xenith helmets, he said, with the overwhelming share of its business in youth and high school football.

There's a disproportionate focus on the pros, however, due to the recent focus on head injuries, especially concussions and brain damage. This season 317 concussions were reported by NFL teams, according to data from the league and StatNews. The highly publicized issue, not surprisingly, has had a dramatic impact on helmets — both the makers and the users.

While critics, including some former players, say the league was late in responding to concerns over the long-term mental health effects of concussions, over the past several years, the NFL has instituted more than two dozen safety-related rules, including the Head Health Initiative. That program focuses on finding new technologies that can protect players from brain injuries.

In its 2015 health and safety report, the league stated that concussions during the regular season were down 35 percent from 2012 to 2014, and that concussions caused by helmet-to-helmet hits dropped 43 percent.

Yet the league is not a funder of a recently announced $16 million study by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head hits in contact sports.

Innovative kickoff

Launched in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 2004, Xenith is the brainchild of former Harvard quarterback Vin Ferrara — himself a victim of several concussions as a player. Now Ferrara is a physician, MBA and director of medical affairs at Biogen — whose design for a safer helmet attracted a reported $30 million from several private investors, including billionaire Dan Gilbert.

The founder of Quicken Loans and owner of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers is now Xenith's largest shareholder, and last year he moved the company to his native Detroit as part of an ongoing effort to revitalize the Motor City's manufacturing heritage. Esposito is the former COO of Fathead, another of Gilbert's sports ventures, and Quicken CEO Bill Emerson sits on Xenith's board.

Xenith came along at an ideal time. It started selling helmets in 2009, when concern about football-related head injuries was mounting. Xenith addressed the problem with a patented system of air-filled shock absorbers, underneath and independent of the polycarbonate shell, which help minimize sudden impact to the head, Esposito explained. "It acts very much like an air bag in a car, to dissipate the forces all over the head so it slows down the movement of the head."

The NFL allows players to choose their own helmets, the only stipulation being that they are certified by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), an independent trade organization responsible for testing athletic equipment. NOCSAE's current helmet safety standards, established in 1973, were created to prevent serious head and neck injuries, though not specifically concussions. Colleges, high schools and youth leagues abide by NOCSAE standards, too.

"How can anyone argue against making better equipment, teaching the game to be played safer and legislating new rules?" -Joe Esposito, CEO of Xenith

Quite by coincidence, Virginia Tech has become the de facto, if unofficial, arbiter of helmet safety. "I was at a military conference in 2003 and saw a presentation for a new accelerometer that could fit inside a football helmet and measure impacts," recalled Stefan Duma, professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics at the university. His department studies safety for the auto industry and the military. Soon after, he rigged the sensors inside the Hokies' football helmets and began collecting data.

"Around 2009, I got a phone call from our equipment manager, basically asking what helmets to buy," Duma said. "We had never intended to test helmets, but we wanted to answer that question. We realized there was no information available to the public about any of these products other than what the manufacturers said, and they all said their helmets were the best. That's when we started to develop the STAR system."

Today, as soon as a new football helmet hits the market, Duma's team buys three, runs them through a series of 120 impact tests and assigns them a STAR — Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk — rating, from 1 to 5, 5 being the safest for reducing concussion risk. To avoid any conflict of interest, the program is completely funded by Virginia Tech.

The ratings, published periodically since 2011, have upended the helmet business. Manufacturers have redesigned their head gear in order to garner high ratings, while many players and parents scramble for top-rated models. Yet Duma is among experts who warn that there's no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet.

"I don't think there's ever going to be this perfect, magic helmet that prevents concussions," he stated, "but there has been a race to make better helmets. In 2011, there was only one 5-star; now there's over 15."

Hidden risks on the field

Amidst criticism that the STAR ratings don't accurately mimic on-the-field collisions, prior to this season the NFL, in collaboration with the NFL Players Association, sponsored an independent laboratory test of 17 different helmets from five manufacturers, worn by league players.

"Our study is the only laboratory-based evaluation of football helmets that includes rotational motion," said test coordinator Jeff Crandall, professor of engineering and applied sciences at the University of Virginia and head of the NFL's engineering subcommittee, when the results were released. "Most experts believe that rotational motion plays a role in the causation in certain types of brain injuries, including concussion." The STAR system does not use rotational motion in its tests.

Xenith only makes 5-star helmets, and has three models in the most current Virginia Tech ratings. The company's $300 Epic Varsity helmet claimed the top spot in the NFL rankings, which are posted in every NFL locker room — and ballyhooed in Xenith's marketing promotions at all levels of the game, especially targeting equipment managers. "More and more, we see equipment managers trying to provide as much information as possible" to players, Esposito said.

Meanwhile, the debate over concussions and other head injuries rages. The NFL is appealing a potential $1 billion settlement of a lawsuit brought by former players to compensate them for brain damage they claim occurred during their careers. Star players are retiring early, fearing similar fates. Parents are refusing to let their kids play football. The related Will Smith movie Concussion has tallied nearly $38.6 million worldwide to date. Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) is poised to reintroduce previously failed legislation aimed at setting new helmet safety standards to include concussion prevention.

Nonetheless, the game is more popular than ever. The NFL is expected to rake in $13 billion for the 2015 season, and CBS is getting a record $5 million for a 30-second spot in Super Bowl 50, which may well go down as the most viewed TV broadcast in history.

That's all good news for Xenith. "How can anyone argue against making better equipment, teaching the game to be played safer and legislating new rules?" Esposito said. "It's unbelievable that it's taken this long."

— By Bob Woods, special to CNBC.com