Any day now, scientist and businessman David Halstead expects to get a call from federal investigators looking into football helmet safety.
The co-founder and technical director of the privately owned Southern Impact Research Center, in Blount County, Tenn., has thought about what investigators may ask.
Halstead said he'd tell investigators that helmet manufacturers -- for the most part -- make excellent products. However, he would add that the companies don't do an adequate job of telling athletes, coaches, parents and others exactly what helmets can and cannot do.
"The world thinks if you put on a helmet, your head should be protected from everything that should befall it," Halstead said. "... Certain kinds of head injuries are not preventable."
Helmet safety has come to the forefront in recent months with widespread publicity about concussions and other traumatic head and neck injuries suffered by football players. The National Football League has stepped up enforcement of rules against illegal hits in response to concern about concussions, sparking debate among fans and players.
Pressure on the federal government to get involved intensified earlier this month when New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall asked the Federal Trade Commission to "investigate misleading safety claims and deceptive practices" involving helmet sales. The Democrat previously had asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission to investigate helmet safety.
On Friday, the Associated Press reported that the FTC would look into helmet manufacturers' marketing claims. "We agree that these are serious concerns, and will determine what action by this agency may be appropriate," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz wrote to Udall in a letter obtained by AP.
Federal investigators are likely to call on the Southern Impact Research Center because it operates one of the few testing labs in the country accredited by the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation, or A2LA, and it has extensive experience testing football helmets. In a typical year, it tests dozens of different football helmets and performs thousands of individual tests, administrative director Scott Halstead said.
Football helmets represent big business, with 4 to 6 million football players nationwide, in leagues from Pop Warner to professional. Helmets can cost hundreds of dollars each.
Football helmets are extremely effective at reducing injury and have virtually eliminated skull fractures, but it's impossible to provide 100 percent protection against concussions, according to David Halstead.
"You don't have to get hit in the head to have a concussion," added Mike Oliver, executive director for the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. Concussions occur, he said, when the head rapidly accelerates or decelerates. (Visualize a football player's head quickly snapping forward, then backward after being tackled.)
NOCSAE is a voluntary organization funded by its members, who include representatives of helmet manufacturers and reconditioners, athletic trainers, coaches, equipment managers, sports medicine and other organizations. The organization is a leading funding source for sports-related concussion research, spending about $2.5 million in the last two years, Oliver said.
NOCSAE lists only five research and testing labs on its website. One of them is Southern Impact Research Center. David Halstead serves as NOCSAE's technical adviser.
Among the dozens of Research Center clients are major football helmet manufacturers, including Riddell, Schutt Sports, Rawlings and Adams USA.
Udall specifically criticized Riddell and Schutt in his letter to the FTC. Among other things, Udall challenges Riddell's marketing claim that research shows "a 31 percent reduction in the risk of concussion in players wearing a Riddell Revolution football helmet" instead of a traditional one.
The senator also takes a jab at NOCSAE. Its "football helmet standard does not specifically address concussion risks" or "distinguish between helmets designed for professional, college, high school, and younger football players," Udall wrote.
Developing a helmet standard that prevents concussions isn't as simple as requiring helmets to be bigger and heavier, Oliver said. Research shows that bigger and heavier helmets could lead to increases in other injuries.
It's uncertain what may result from a federal investigation, but government involvement could be a good thing if it generates increased money for helmet and concussion research, David Halstead said.
"We are leading the charge to understand (concussions) well enough to make meaningful change in helmet standards," he said.