Udall Calls for Federal Crackdown on Bogus Concussion Safety Claims for Youth Sports Gear

WASHINGTON – At a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on deceptive and dangerous claims by manufacturers that their youth sports gear can prevent head injuries. 

Udall has led efforts in Congress to curb false advertising by manufacturers and improve safety standards for sports equipment. A National Academies of Sciences report has found little evidence to support claims that many helmets and headgear used by youth football and soccer players can protect against concussion. 

In the past, Udall has highlighted marketing by headgear makers in particular, which may actually give athletes a false sense of safety and lead them to take risks that put them in greater danger. And during today’s hearing, he raised concern about the company Shock Doctor, which makes a mouth guard it claims can protect against concussions. Udall pressed FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez about whether this kind of “anti-concussion” marketing constitutes a deceptive practice, and secured a commitment from her that she will investigate. 

A leading mouth guard for youth sports, Shock Doctor is the official mouth guard of USA Football, and sponsor of its concussion-awareness program, “Heads Up Football.” 

“Approximately 1 million young athletes are enrolled in Heads Up Football, so I am deeply concerned by Shock Doctor’s false claim that its mouth guards prevent concussions…. I’m quoting right here from this product — it promises it will ‘absorb shock to help protect against brain concussions.’ It promises ‘hard-core protection’ and ‘fearless performance,'” Udall said, citing Shock Doctor’s packaging and advertisements. Click here to see examples of Shock Doctor’s marketing claims.

“Concussion experts warn this is dangerous — it puts kids at greater risk of injury, including permanent brain damage from second impact syndrome,” Udall told Ramirez. 

The FTC previously reached a settlement with mouthguard marketer Brain-Pad, which bars that company from using unsupported claims that their mouth guards reduce the risk of concussions. And Ramirez responded to Udall that similar claims by Shock Doctor and others should be examined. “I absolutely agree that this is a very serious issue…. (I’m) absolutely concerned about deceptive claims that lack substantiation. I appreciate you bringing this particular issue to my attention, and I assure you that we will take a very close look,” she said 

A supporter of youth sports and an advocate for consumer protection since he served as New Mexico’s attorney general, Udall has long worked to ensure parents, coaches and athletes have the information they need to make well-informed decisions about safety. Last year, he called on the FTC to investigate potentially misleading claims used to sell soccer headgear, and he successfully included provisions in the omnibus appropriations measure to help protect youth athletes from the dangers of sports-related traumatic brain injury. 

Earlier this year, the Commerce Committee approved Udall’s Youth Sports Concussion Act, a bill to increase potential FTC penalties for unscrupulous advertising. Udall said today that he will continue to work with his colleagues to ensure the bill is signed into law this year. 

The following are Udall’s remarks before the committee:  Chairwoman Ramirez, this Friday, a sports tradition will play out across New Mexico and the nation. High school teams will take to the grid iron and the soccer pitch. We absolutely want to encourage young people to play sports. But we want them to do so safely. And parents and coaches have good reason to be concerned about the danger of concussions.  

The National Academy of Sciences has stated that all concussions involve some level of injury to the brain. And earlier this month, the NFL said that it will provide $100 million dollars for medical and engineering research on concussion, chronic traumatic encephalopathy – or CTE – and player health.  

This follows the blockbuster movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith as the doctor who first diagnosed CTE in a professional football player.  

The NFL denied the dangers of CTE and concussion for far too long. And it has been dangerously slow to act before now. So its announcement is significant. We should welcome these new resources, and encourage more.

But this isn’t just about the million dollar pros. This is about kids. CTE also has been found in former high school athletes. We can’t just accept what the NFL-funded research finds. Medical research must be peer reviewed and unbiased. And efforts to find an engineering solution – or new technology to prevent concussion – may prove elusive. We also need agencies like the FTC engaged and ready to take action.

For example, when it comes to sports products that prevent concussions, it is understandable that parents and players want to buy such products. But the National Academies report found that there is no scientific evidence to support claims that sports gear – such as mouth guards and soccer head bands – reduce the risk of concussion. It found little evidence that football helmets can reduce concussions.

Unfortunately, some irresponsible sports equipment makers falsely claim that their products protect against head injuries. And that may give players a false sense of safety – and lead them to take risks.

Former University of New Mexico soccer star Alexis Ball testified in this committee that she felt she could play more aggressively when wearing so-called “anti concussion” head gear.

Concussion experts warn that this is dangerous. It puts kids at greater risk of injury, including permanent brain damage from “second impact syndrome.”  

I am pleased that this Committee approved legislation I sponsored to crack down on these false claims. I continue to work with stakeholders to enact it this year. Time is running short.

Chairman Ramirez, here is just one current example of a dangerous “anti concussion” marketing claim.

[Holds up mouth guard marketing materials] 

The Shock Doctor is a leading mouth guard for youth sports. It is the official mouth guard of USA Football and sponsors its concussion awareness program “Heads up Football.” Approximately 1 million young athletes are enrolled in Heads Up Football.

So I am deeply concerned by Shock Doctor’s false claim that its mouth guards prevent concussions. Shock Doctor mouth guards — and I’m quoting right here from this product — it promises it will “absorb shock to help protect against brain concussions.” It promises “hard-core protection” and “fearless performance.” Shock Doctor even encourages this false sense of security when it states that: “Many athletes report that they perform better with a properly fitting mouthguard… Maybe it’s because with extra protection, you aren’t afraid to really throw yourself into the tackle, the face-off, the draw, or the scrum.”

Chairwoman Ramirez, the FTC previously sent warning letters to sports equipment makers and retailers about these types of advertising claims.    

Do you agree that this type of “anti concussion” marketing constitutes a deceptive practice that could put young athletes at real risk of injury?

[Ramirez responds]

Thank you Chairwoman Ramirez for your response. Earlier this year, this committee approved my Youth Sports Concussion Act, which would increase the potential FTC penalties for such unscrupulous advertising. I am working with my Senate colleagues to get this important bill signed into law – this year. It is past time to put an end to these dangerous “anti concussion” marketing claims for youth sports gear.