The NFL's ongoing effort to combat concussions may be yielding some success. The league announced last week concussions were down 29 percent in 2018, from 190 a year ago to 135 this season.
With so many head injuries, it's hard to believe that in the first decade of professional football helmets were not required. It's also unbelievable to a Berkeley neurology doctor that there's not a better way to protect players from the kind of head injuries he sees routinely.
That's why Dr. Robert Knight also spends time cracking heads – fake ones – to test his version of a game-changing helmet he and his colleagues developed.
"The principal is simple: we want to get force away from the skull, and our solution is to have a two-shell helmet," Knight said. "It's the front of the brain that's absorbing the brunt of the problem."
On the field, linemen take more of a beating than others. Research shows 44 percent of them have serious, lasting head injuries – more than double those of running backs and defensive backs.
Thirty-two-year-old Danny Skuta, a NFL linebacker who played for the Bengals, 49ers and Jaguars, is keeping a close eye on what Dr. Knight's doing. Skuta ended his career with a concussion.
"You see the inner shell is strapped. The outer shell moves and it moves whether you are hit in the front, in the back, in the side. It's omni-directional and every time that thing moves the strut mechanism that connects the outer to the inner shell absorbs some of that energy … which means less energy to the brain."
More than that, they're looking at the doubled-shelled helmet beyond football. Knight has prototype helmets for hockey, biking and baseball.
While helmets are a multi-billion-dollar business, they have not mitigated the spread of a serious brain disease from trauma to the head. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy was found in 87 percent of the brains of deceased football players.
"The skull wasn't designed to play football, to play sports, to have car-bike accidents et cetera. So in some ways it's a bad design," Knight said.
Now with a wall full of patents to make his helmet, and more research and crash testing to come, Knight hopes what he's doing outside the exam room will make up for what he calls "bad design."