National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment
The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) is a non-profit organization operating in the United States, whose mission is to reduce athletic injuries and death through standards and certification for athletic equipment. Schools and universities look to NOCSAE certification of equipment, particularly helmets, to protect players and reduce liability. NOCSAE data indicate a significant reduction in athlete fatalities and brain injuries when using NOCSAE-certified equipment. NOCSAE has been criticized for stifling innovation, holding a conflict of interest, and not furthering true player safety.
Creation and early years
NOCSAE was organized in 1969 with the purpose of reducing death and injuries through the establishment of standards and certification for athletic equipment. It does this through researching and testing equipment, developing new standards, and improving existing ones.
NOCSAE's commissioning came in the wake of the death of 32 players in organized football in 1968 and subsequent concerns over safety of athletic equipment. Based on its limited funding, NOCSAE has narrowed its efforts from protective athletic equipment in all sports toward helmets' effectiveness in reducing injury, particularly in football, lacrosse, and baseball.
NOCSAE standards, adoption, and effects
As a general matter, to be approved by NOCSAE, helmets must resist brain-injuring, concussive forces. Research from NOCSAE, in addition to targeting helmet safety standards, has also increased understanding of the mechanisms of head and neck injuries and the design and structure of helmets, headgear, and face masks.
NOCSAE standards are adopted, if at all, on a voluntary basis. While a sport governing body may mandate that a piece of equipment be "NOCSAE approved", that is a rule or mandate of the governing body, not NOCSAE.
By 1973, NOCSAE had finalized and published a standard testing criteria for football helmets. The NCAA began advising its members to purchase helmets certified by NOCSAE beginning in 1975. NOCSAE helmet standards were required in colleges in 1978 and in high schools in 1980.
Stickers indicating NOCSAE certification are placed onto helmets. Attorneys specializing in sports law advise schools and universities to purchase appropriate athletic equipment for the athletic activities offered that is of satisfactory quality, specifically football helmets that adhere to NOCSAE guidelines. School athletic staff are advised by experts to search for NOCSAE certification stickers, both as part of their athletic training education and day-to-day activities . They are warned to do this, in particular, for liability reasons, as "serious legal reprecussions may occur if a helmet is issued to a student athletic " lacking an approval sticker.
NOCSAE reports that by 1985, the number of head injury fatalities had fallen significantly, with zero deaths in 1990, the first season with no deaths since reporting began in 1931. It also claims that the incidence of serious head injuries had fallen from 4.25 players per 100,000 in the late 1960s to 0.68 players per 100,000 in the late 1980s.
The voting members of the NOCSAE board consists of representatives selected by their professional organizations, including:
- American Academy of Pediatrics
- American College of Sports Medicine
- American Medical Society for Sports Medicine
- Athletic Equipment Managers Association
- National Athletic Equipment Reconditioners Association
- National Athletic Trainers' Association
- Sporting and Fitness Industry Association
- American Football Coaches Association
- American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine
and a non-voting representative from each the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Critics note that NOCSAE has "a close working relationship with" the sporting goods industry, and that because NOCSAE is funded by those few companies, it has "an inherent conflict of interest". They also claim that NOCSAE is not effective at lessening concussions and improving safety. U.S. Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico requested that a federal agency, the Consumer Products Safety Commission, assume an official role in helmet safety testing and certification, effectively displacing NOCSAE.
NOCSAE's certification standards have been criticized for authorizing helmet models that are "archaic or did not score well on specific impact tests." In addition, NOCSAE's tests focus on preventing catastrophic injuries like skull fractures, not concussions. Observers note that such testing is equivalent to judging a car's safety based on its seat belts, with no consideration given to air bags.
Critics note that while NOCSAE standards call for equipment to be reconditioned, where possible, and recertified every year, a school may keep its helmets as NOCSAE-certified simply by never submitting them for re-certification.
The inflexible nature of NOCSAE guidelines, stemming from the hesitance of helmet manufacturers to take any risks that could lead to lawsuits, leads some to argue that innovative helmet designs may be underdeveloped.
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