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Guardian Cap caught in catch-22 after NOCSAE statement

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The Guardian Cap, a protective cover for football helmets, touts that it helps reduce the impact of hits by up to 33 percent. And it's catching on across the country at colleges, high schools and youth leagues.

However, it has yet to be approved by the National Operating Committee for Standards in Athletic Equipment. Because of that, the Colorado High School Activities Association has banned the cap from games and strongly encouraged state schools to not use it for legal reasons. That ruling came days after a Denver Post story said more than a dozen high schools were using the Guardian Cap.

The Coloradoan reported on the state's controversy following the CHSAA ruling, talking to Dr. Steve Yemm, the Colorado State University football team doctor.

Not only is Dr. Yemm a team doctor for Colorado State University and Fort Collins High School's football teams, but the Orthopaedic Center of the Rockies sports medicine expert has seen his sons suffer concussions throughout their playing careers.

Matt Yemm was a star quarterback for Fort Collins High School who went on to play wide receiver for CSU. Matt graduated in 2011, and he was pushed out of the game he loves after suffering a sixth career concussion during a stint playing in NFL Europe.

Matt has always used the best protection available, but his father said none of that matters.

"People are looking for the holy grail, and that doesn't exist," said Dr. Yemm, referencing equipment manufacturers and parents who seek the best equipment to prevent concussions. "There's no data out there that helmets have changed the incidents of concussions. There's certainly people still working on new technology."

Many parents still were allowing their children to wear the Guardian Cap in practices, even after the CHSAA ruling.

Most players and coaches who spoke to The Coloradoan were under the impression that the majority of head trauma injuries happen at practice. Before they were made aware Guardian Caps were banned from all football-related activities, parents and coaches were OK with the CHSAA ruling, because their kids would still be protected during the most dangerous parts of football.

That's simply not true.

Two-thirds of high school sports concussions happen during competition, according to a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.

If the Guardian Cap is the holy grail, at least for parents, its effectiveness has been stagnated by the CHSAA ruling that bans its use during games. And that's when the vast majority of high school football players are most likely to suffer a concussion.

As for NOCSAE, it is an industry oversight group that has yet to test the Guardian Cap. That could change soon, but officials from POC Ventures, which makes the Cap, said they are getting mixed messages.

Mike Oliver, executive director and general counsel for NOCSAE, said the organization's statement tentatively applies to Guardian Caps. But NOCSAE has been in communication with POC since the statement was released, as the cap-making company seeks an exemption to the statement. That could happen soon if POC follows some basic guidelines.

"Theoretically, Guardian could go out and buy 5,000 Riddell helmets brand new, then subject them to all the same testing through an accredited laboratory," Oliver said in a phone interview. "Guardian then certifies these helmets, and I would issue them a license agreement."

Another, perhaps less cost-prohibitive way for POC to obtain certification, is to conduct its own NOCSAE-standard testing. Companies like Riddell and Schutt already do this.

POC said via email it's not that simple.

"The Guardian Cap has been independently tested at the same labs used by helmet manufacturers and the results meet or exceed all NOCSAE standards," a portion of the POC statement reads. "Each request to NOCSAE to have the Guardian Cap evaluated or to establish a standard for helmet add-ons has been turned down or ignored."

Thus, POC is facing a catch-22, which means it's still banned in Colorado games and discouraged for practices.

Indeed, NOCSAE's job, according to Oliver and the organization's website, is to develop testing standards. Yet Oliver said NOCSAE simply doesn't have a standard for third-party add-ons. Although the organization has the power to create standards, Oliver said without a standard, NOCSAE's hands are tied.

It's a cycle that leaves the small company POC, which sold just 8,000 Guardian Caps a year ago, fighting a losing battle.

"It is the goal of POC Ventures to ensure that coaches, athletic trainers and parents who have witnessed first-hand the positive results of using the Guardian Cap with their current NOCSAE certified helmets have the ability to choose the equipment that they believe best serves their athletes," the POC's statement concluded.

NOCSAE's announcement has left ripples at high schools in Alabama. It upset a number of coaches who said the Guardian Cap has made a difference, according to AL.com.

Vestavia Hills football coach Buddy Anderson -- a veteran of more than 40 years of coaching -- started using Guardian Caps, a product with the potential to reduce concussions, this spring.

But it appears he won't be using them anymore.

Not because they proved ineffective. Quite the opposite, he said, but a recent announcement by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment proclaimed that using such add-on devices "voids the certification of compliance with the NOCSAE standard."

All helmets must be NOCSAE certified, which means Guardian Caps, as well as similar devices designed to cushion the impact of blows to the head and by extension reduce concussions, are likely now off limits.

"We wore 'em this spring and we had less problems than we had (in the past)," said Anderson, who said his program spent $6,000 on Guardian Caps. "We're dealing with kids' heads and we're doing everything we can to protect kids' heads."

-- Bill Bradley, contributing editor

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