The colors make a sudden psychological impact. The black background feels ominous. Red lettering draped across the top tells the reader in a foreboding tone the below warning appears on every piece of the company’s most important (and most heavily scrutinized these days) product.
In stark white on the black background, the message is clear: no similar product, not even ours, can save you from possible death or serious injury. With the delicate touch of a jackhammer, the message says, ”To avoid these risks, do not engage in the sport of football.”
A check box must be checked acknowledging the warning has been read, and that’s just to enter the Schutt Sports site. ”In the year 2012, there will be VENGEANCE,” says the large ad upon entry.
According to Schutt, sales on its football equipment in 2011 were up 15 percent through the first eight months of last year. That figure was driven, according to a press release dated last Sept. 22, by double-digit growth in several key areas.
“Helmets, shoulder pads, faceguards and accessories all registered significant increases compared to the same period in 2010,” it said.
Eight days prior to that release, a report from the Scripps Howard News Service outlined substantial concussion numbers, marking “…that the total number of concussions among young athletes under the age of 24 is about 300,000 a year, half occurring among high school competitors,” it said. “The Brain Injury Association of America estimates there may be as many as 1.6 million to 3.8 million sports and recreation-related concussions among all Americans each year.”
Within football, the report detailed a study done by bone specialists at Brown University that studied collegiate players at three schools for three years.
“They found that running backs and quarterbacks tend to take the hardest hits, since they and opponents are often moving at top speed and from opposite directions, while linebackers and offensive and defensive linemen — who make contact on every play — took hits to the head more often, but with less force,” the study found. “The researchers said among the possible outcomes from their work is that helmet shape or padding might be revised to best protect players at various positions.”
If that was the hope, little, if anything, has changed in 2012. At least, that seems to be the case when even the world’s No. 1 maker of football helmets (according to the Schutt catalog) is willing to concede that its own product can’t protect users.
That said, Schutt continues to try, evidenced by its latest helmet, the “Vengeance,” which was released this past January. Boasting improved absorption technology, the company gave the sense that its newest helmet addresses the concussion issue.
“Our new Dual Density TPU is designed to also meet and better absorb those lower level impacts, which have been shown to potentially have a cumulative, negative effect on the brain, leading to progressive degenerative diseases,” said Glenn Beckmann, director of marketing communications, in the product’s press release.
While the company trumped its advancements in technology, it yelled a lot louder through its marketing efforts. Framing the new equipment piece as a weapon of sorts drew expected raised eyebrows and ire from consumers and watchdogs who were and are as sensitive to football’s dangers as ever. And, that was before Junior Seau’s suicide this month.
Considering its new product’s release only months ago, Schutt is in a precarious spot.
Perhaps seeing a pending crossroad between its marketing efforts for a new product and even more, growing backlash against the sport it depends on for sales, including from former NFL players like Kurt Warner, Schutt offered a new press release on Monday.
“The untimely death of Junior Seau and the announcement by Kurt Warner and others that they don’t want their children playing football, has once again brought the issue of head injuries to the forefront,” the release said. “ESPN’s week long “Concussion Crisis” segments featured stories with former players talking about their health concerns from playing the sport.”
After saying the company “applauded” ESPN for its “continuing focus,” and referring to the message that appears on the site, Beckmann said some of the discussions surrounding concussions may be off-base.
“Our message is and always will be about promoting safety in the game,” Beckmann said. “The earnest discussions going on around the country are a great thing, inspired in part by pieces like the ESPN-OTL series. But some of those discussions are focused on what we believe to be, quite frankly, questionable information.
“We use our pulpit as a helmet maker to help players, coaches, parents and fans differentiate between the good and the bad information. Our position remains the same: we don’t believe any organization can truthfully say a helmet significantly reduces the risk of concussion.
“The false sense of security created by such promises is, in our mind, dangerous.”
One wonders if Schutt’s most recent release is the company’s attempt to avoid a repeat situation from 12 years ago, when the company lost a $12 million decision in which the jury found the company’s technological design was sound, but that Schutt had marketed the helmet in a negligent manner.
More than a decade later, a new product is on the market, concussion concerns have never been higher, and the literal lifeblood of Schutt’s cash cow, the game of football, is being scrutinized more than it ever has been as more information regarding concussions and other long-term health issues becomes available.
So, what’s a company to do?
For now, Schutt appears willing to do what it can; meaning it will continue to develop stronger helmets, even if they come with a complete disclaimer acknowledging the company’s work may actually do very little in curbing or stopping football’s fastest-growing concern.
And, while attempting to market the helmet to fans and those who choose to continue to play, is Schutt setting up for another large payout should someone present another lawsuit claiming marketing negligence?
The path being walked currently certainly seems to have familiar landmarks.
And, on the whole, while it continues to make a sale, is the company helping hasten the entire sport’s demise by confirming that even the equipment market leader can’t figure out how to make it safer?
At this point, it is hard to argue otherwise.