In January 2010, President Obama paid a visit to the Riddell athletic goods factory in Elyria, Ohio. On the shop floor, the workers presented the chief exec with a gift—a custom-made football helmet finished in presidential blue, complete with the executive seal on the side.
Obama took the huge helmet in his hands and smiled. "I'll need this during the State of the Union," he said. "That's a serious-looking helmet. I can knock some heads with this."
Four years later, the president's words echo with more than one kind of truth. The Riddell helmet is still a serious-looking piece of equipment—indeed, a legendary one. Apart from the pigskin itself, no other item is so inextricably linked to American football. And, regrettably, the "knocking heads" bit is timely, too. Today Riddell finds itself at the center of the raging controversy about concussions, a hit the game itself has taken, too.
Well into the 1930s, football players wore soft-leather headgear, which not only looked ridiculous but offered scant protection. John T. Riddell invented the first plastic helmet in 1939, but it wasn't until he fitted it out with a suspension system (the interior fabric webbing that allows the shell to rest on your head) that football players began wearing his helmet in earnest. The NFL adopted the gear in 1949 and, as pro football moved into prime time, Riddell helmets eventually clad the heads of some 70 percent of players. By 1989, the brand became the NFL's official helmet.
Protective equipment reflects evolving technology, and Riddell's 2002 introduction of its Revolution helmet was well-timed to rising concerns about head trauma. In 2006, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center released a study (one funded in part by Riddell) concluding that athletes wearing the Revolution helmet were 31 percent less likely to suffer a concussion. Riddell used the claim in its advertising. It was a losing proposition.
Riddell has since been sued by 75 former pros and one former high school player in Colorado over its helmets and, specifically, its marketing. "It's expected by any customer that a helmet will add some level of protection," said Darren Heitner, a sports attorney based in Miami. "The issue is specific claims that were made. We haven't seen any lack of lawsuits against the company."
While Riddell lost its official NFL sponsorship deal in 2013, it's unlikely the brand will lose its central place in football. But Riddell's current woes represent a degree of irony, considering that it was the brand that started the safety conversation 75 years ago. Riddell helmets, said veteran sports marketing consultant Joe Favorito, "made the game safer and opened up the door for the NFL to become what it is today. That piece of equipment took football from being a roughneck sport to something socially acceptable."