broken wall with football helmet

When it comes to sports, from amateur to professional, concern about brain damage due to concussions and blows to the head are reaching a crescendo. Manufacturers have responded with a variety of products designed to monitor impact forces on a player’s head, but they track different types of motion and collect different types of data. This raises the questions of “Who gets to decide what number of impacts are too many, and how can we know that the sensors actually measure what they say they measure?” It’s a complicated issue, and it has been made even more complicated by the organization offering to certify these products.

In an excellent article in the Boston Globe, reporter Bob Holer details the conflicts surrounding the role of the Sports Legacy Institute in this market. Founded by former college and professional athlete Chris Nowinski, the Institute was created to increase awareness of the damaging effects of repeated impacts to the head during sports at all levels. The complication comes when the same organization decided to create the Hit Count program to certify the head-impact monitoring products that are on the market. As Holer describes it, the companies that produce these devices are the same ones that provided funds to help launch the Institute. And the Hit Count certification costs a hefty $25,000 a year per product. (Sponsors pay half price because they helped fund the project initially.) Testing is done by a Canadian lab, but only recently were the details of the certification standards released. Some critics of the program are concerned that one of the manufacturers was formerly a client of the lab. And some feel that the certification should test for rotational blows in addition to the simple linear blows.

In the end, the consumer has to rely on the advice of experts to know whether or not a product performs as advertised. For medical products, the FDA applies stringent conditions for certification and approval, but the agency has been working to define more health and fitness products as non-regulated. In this vacuum, it seems that a strong certification program will benefit the industry and consumers, but the value is diminished when there are doubts about the validity of the testing involved. The Hit Count program is dragging a lot of questions around with it, and the best solution may be to get some independent testing or standards group to take over the program.