Already under scrutiny from two federal agencies, football helmet safety will enter both houses of Congress on Wednesday through bills that would improve standards for headgear and curb spurious advertising of all children’s sports safety equipment.
The legislation, drafted by the office of Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, would force the football helmet industry to adopt testing standards that specifically address concussions and the needs of children under 12 years old, which existing standards do not consider. It would mandate independent third-party oversight of this process — compared to the largely self-policing environment in place now — as well as labels clearly indicating each helmet’s age.
Called the Children’s Sports Athletic Equipment Safety Act, the law also would strengthen the power of the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to penalize companies that make false or misleading claims about any children’s sports safety product, including headbands, mouth guards and other items.
Sports equipment safety standards are overseen by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (Nocsae), a volunteer trade association made up mostly of doctors and representatives of the sporting goods industry. Nocsae’s football standard, developed to prevent skull fractures and other catastrophic brain injuries, has not changed meaningfully since 1973.
Responding to an investigation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Nocsae officials have pledged to pursue some of the reforms required in Udall’s legislation.
In a telephone interview Tuesday confirming his plan to introduce the legislation, Udall said that the bill was designed to ”light a fire under” the helmet industry and, if Nocsae does not act adequately, to require the C.P.S.C. to impose new standards.
”The voluntary efforts have failed — the voluntary regulatory agency or body, whatever we want to call it, just hasn’t moved forward in an aggressive way,” Udall said. ”We hope they’ll act first to protect safety. But if they don’t, the C.P.S.C. will.”
Udall had asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate two helmet manufacturers for false and misleading advertising of how their helmets protect against concussion. (The commission does not confirm or deny investigations, as a matter of policy.) Last week two Democratic members of Congress, Representatives Henry Waxman of California and G. K. Butterfield of North Carolina, called on the Republican-controlled House to hold a hearing on football helmet safety issues.
Mike Oliver, Nocsae’s executive director and legal counsel, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that his organization had been as aggressive as possible in pursuing a helmet testing standard regarding concussions, but that science had not yet established the forces that cause that injury. Oliver expressed more confidence that Nocsae could soon devise a helmet standard specific to young players, using science borrowed from children’s bicycle and motor-sports helmets.
”I understand the senator’s frustration and others’ frustration, because there isn’t an answer yet,” Oliver said. ”We have almost a crisis with respect to concussions and what to do about it. The one thing we won’t do is make a change to a standard to show we quote-unquote did something. Otherwise we’re just experimenting on the kids.”
A spokesman for the C.P.S.C., which pressured Nocsae to consider new helmet labels and other safety measures, said that the commission does not comment on pending legislation.
A companion bill to Udall’s will be introduced Wednesday in the House by Representative Bill Pascrell, Democrat of New Jersey. Pascrell authored a bill passed by the House last fall that requires national protocols for the treatment of youth-sports concussions; the Senate has yet to vote on that legislation.
Last Thursday, the organization that oversees the reconditioning of used helmets — which involves cleaning and replacing worn parts — announced that it would no longer accept headgear more than 10 years old, which could ultimately phase out helmets of that age. National rules for youth and high school football continue to allow the use of headgear of any age or condition, as long as it met the Nocsae standard at the time of manufacture.
Udall’s bill does not set an age limit for helmets or require that they be professionally reconditioned every year or two, but it does mandate that labels clearly indicate when the helmet was manufactured and, if applicable, reconditioned. Such labels are now often placed illegibly under helmets’ interior padding, leaving the helmet’s age a relative mystery.
The bill requires neither funding nor immediate government involvement, which both Udall and Pascrell said should help encourage bipartisan support.
”It’s got to help us,” Pascrell said. ”We have people in the Congress right now who are nitpicking away public safety, which we saw with funds for firefighters, policemen and E.M.T.’s. Seems to me one of the top priorities is to keep our kids safe. Will they look in the mirror and say that? We’ll see.”
The bill expands beyond football helmets to address advertising for all children’s sports safety equipment, such as headbands for soccer and lacrosse eyewear. It allows the F.T.C. to impose civil fines on manufacturers that make false or misleading claims, and empowers state attorneys general to sue companies under the new law.
”This isn’t just an issue about football,” Udall said. ”We have all sorts of athletic equipment that is out there to fulfill the role of safety or protection. So it seems to me if you have a headband or a mouth guard, the same set of issues come up — misrepresentation issues. We’re trying to be broad.”