The Roanoke Times, Matt Gentry, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — A major football helmet manufacturer has sharply increased its Washington lobbying this year, responding to a congressional push to come up with new safety standards for children's football helmets.
Riddell, which makes helmets for both kids and adults and is the official helmet of the NFL, spent $80,000 in the first quarter of this year lobbying on new legislation that could lead to federal regulation of youth football helmets. The company, which has come under criticism from one of the bill's sponsors for claiming that its product reduces concussions, had spent almost nothing on lobbying last year.
At the same time, the group that sets voluntary standards for helmets, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, last month hired a Washington lobbyist for the first time since the group's establishment in 1969. The group is funded by license fees paid by manufacturers.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., introduced the Children's Sports Athletic Equipment Safety Act in March. The bill would give the industry nine months to come up with new standards that address concussion risks and the specific needs of young players. Failing that, the Consumer Product Safety Commission would write mandatory standards.
About 3 million children ages 6-14 play organized youth tackle football, according to USA Football, the sport's national governing body in this country.
Sports concussions among young people have become a big issue in schools across the country, and not just in football. About 135,000 children between the ages of 5 and 18 are treated in emergency rooms each year for sports- or recreation-related concussions and other head injuries. Schools, cities and states are taking steps to reduce these injuries, and some are barring student athletes who show signs of concussions from competing again until cleared by a health care professional.
But the search for a concussion-proof helmet has proven elusive, and there's a consensus that concussions can't be eliminated from football. Last year, the NFL acknowledged that the lack of a perfect helmet was a factor in its decision to impose hefty fines and the threat of suspensions to cut down on dangerous hits at the professional level.
In a statement about its lobbying, Riddell noted that football concussions at all levels have become a leading health concern and touted the effectiveness of its products.
"We believe it is only prudent to follow this legislation and to help members (of Congress), and their staffs, better understand the leadership role that Riddell has played in designing the best head protection we can manufacture for athletes who play football," Riddell said. The company said it is still studying the legislation and hasn't yet taken a position on it.
Udall has assailed helmet makers including Riddell for what he called "misleading safety claims and deceptive practices," and urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate. He specifically criticized Riddell for claiming that its Riddell Revolution football helmet reduces the risk of concussions.
FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said he agreed that Udall raised serious concerns, and that the commission "will determine what action by this agency may be appropriate."
Riddell has called Udall's allegations "unfounded and unfair."
One of the bill's provisions would make it a crime to sell any sporting equipment that makes false or misleading claims about safety benefits.
Last week, a study by Virginia Tech researchers that looked at the effectiveness of helmets in reducing concussions gave the Riddell Revolution Speed the only five-star rating. (That helmet is distinct from the Riddell Revolution helmet, which got a four-star, or "very good", rating.) But the study was limited to helmets for high school and up, and it also gave Riddell's VSR-4 helmet, which was worn by nearly 40 percent of NFL players last year, its second-lowest rating. Riddell stopped selling the VSR-4 last year.
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