CLEVELAND -- Football is back in action. And never has greater attention been paid to player safety at all levels.
But a controversy is brewing over a new device designed to better protect players' heads.
It's called the Guardian Cap: a padded cover that slips over top of a football helmet.
The Guardian Cap is designed to lessen the impact in head to head hits.
POC Ventures, the cap's maker, had 15 Ohio teams signed up to use them.
But that was before the state's athletic office issued a warning that using the caps could open schools up to lawsuits.
The National Athletic Trainers Association says up to 67,000 times a year a high school football player is diagnosed with a concussion.
Coaches are more vigilant than ever.
"Let's face it, you can overcome a broken arm in time or a knee injury. Head injuries are something we are concerned about because we are not sure of the long-term effects," says Jeff Hildebrand, head football coach at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson.
At all levels, players are being taught safer tackling techniques to help guard against serious head injuries.
Manufacturers are taking note too.
"A typical player gets 650 to a 1,000 hits to the head during a football season. And if we can reduce a third of those forces, that's significant," says Lee Hanson, whose science and technology company POC Ventures created The Guardian Cap, an outer-helmet shell which slips over football helmets.
Through the company's testing, as well as independent testing, the cap has been shown to reduce the force of impact by up to 33 percent.
"I can't say and will not say that it stops or reduces concussions. What it does do, and scientifically we've proven it -- it reduces the impact forces," Hanson says.
Teams from the youth level all the way up to NCAA Division 1 schools have purchased the Guardian Caps, including Top 10 ranked Clemson and South Carolina.
Three high school football teams in Northeast Ohio -- Mentor, Eastlake's North High School and Western Reserve Academy in Hudson -- all received the caps to use in practice.
"Yes, we've used them. They decrease the impact force and that's always a good thing," says George Burich, head football coach for the North High School Rangers.
But back in July, The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, or NOCSAE issued a statement about helmet add-ons, like the Guardian Cap.
The statement read, in part: "The addition of after-market items by anyone that changes or alters the protective system by adding or deleting protective padding to the inside or outside of the helmet, or which changes or alters the geometry of the shell or adds mass to the helmet, whether temporary or permanent, voids the certification of compliance with the NOCSAE standard."
The standard for football helmets, set by nonprofit NOCSAE is what schools look to in order to protect themselves from liability if a neck or head injury would occur.
Add-ons like The Guardian Cap could potentially open up schools to lawsuits.
"There is not a problem with performance. There is not a problem with what the product does. The problem is that it comes down to money. And the big helmet companies are not wanting to have another product into their space," says a frustrated Hanson.
For its part, NOCSAE is not saying the Guardian Cap doesn't work.
In its statement NOCSAE did write: "Companies which make add-on products for football helmets have the right to make their own certification of compliance with the NOCSAE standards on a helmet model, but, when that is done, the certification and responsibility for the helmet/third-party product combination would become theirs (not the helmet manufacturer). That certification would be subject to the same obligations applicable to the original helmet manufacturer regarding certification testing, quality control and quality assurance licensure with NOCSAE."
Hanson believes they've already fulfilled that requirement.
"We as the add-on manufacturer have the right to test to NOCSAE standards, which we have done. We have taken several helmets and have tested to the NOCSAE standards and are 4 times better than the NOCSAE standards," Hanson says.
But here's the catch: NOCSAE also says helmet manufacturers have the right "under NOCSAE standards to declare its certification void. It also can decide to engage in additional certification testing of the new model and certify the new model with the add-on product, but it is not required to do so."
Hanson's frustration is evident: "This is a new rule that NOCSAE established on Aug. 7 that gives the helmet manufacturer the right to decertify their helmets. They didn't have that right before," Hanson claims.
He says his company is more than willing to work with NOCSAE and helmet makers to get their seal of approval, but he is still waiting.
"I don't want to come across as negative, but on the board of directors of NOCSAE and the standards committee are most of the helmet companies. It's more about greed and money than anything else," Hanson declares.
NOCSAE'S board of directors includes representatives from groups such as the American College of Sports Medicine, the American College Health Association, the Athletic Equipment Managers Association and the Sports and Fitness Association.
Two of the board members have ties to helmet maker Schutt and Nike, which makes apparel and helmet add-ons like chin straps.
Colorado's state athletic association has taken the step to ban high school teams from using the caps.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association has not gone that far.
In a letter to coaches and athletic directors the OHSAA said: "The decision as to whether to use or not use the helmet attachments remains, at the high school level and all other levels within the discretion of the various teams, coaches, athletes and parents."
The Mentor Cardinals have not used the caps.
North High tried them, but has since discontinued their use.
In an interview with WKYC's John Anderson, Rangers coach George Burich said, "That's my concern with any of those after-market products. Yes, they decrease impact, but are they making a kid stop using their head or are they making a kid use their head more?"
Western Reserve Academy does use the Guardian Cap every day in practice.
In fact, no player is allowed to practice without them.
"If you don't have your cap for practice we send you back in because we care about you and want you to be as safe as possible," says Pioneers head coach Jeff Hildebrand. "After talking with the AD here and the whole process, it came down to the fact that we teach what every other high school coach in America does, which is proper technique for injury prevention. Plus we are adding this other layer of protection on top of it. This way we can tell the parents -- the bottom line, we did everything we can to help their kids stay safe."
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