Investigation prompts schools to remove low-rated football helmets

Investigation prompts schools to remove low-rated football helmets
Investigation prompts schools to remove low-rated football helmets
Investigation prompts schools to remove low-rated football helmets

Football helmet ratings
An Eyewitness News investigation finds some central Indiana high schools and middle schools have been using low-rated football helmets that could put student athletes at greater risk of concussions. Many of those schools are now promising changes following the WTHR investigation, which provides an online tool for parents to see exactly which helmets are being used at their child’s school.

INDIANAPOLIS - Summer workouts are well underway at schools across central Indiana, signaling a new football season is just weeks away.

As area football teams train to become the state’s best, 13 Investigates has discovered some of them have been equipping their players with helmets considered among the worst.

The helmets earned low safety ratings and could put players at a higher risk of head injury – but students, parents and school districts said they were unaware of the ratings until the WTHR investigation.

“Those are helmets I would not want my child wearing,” said helmet researcher Dr. Stefan Duma. “Schools should stop using those helmets.”

Testing shows “dramatic” difference

Duma runs the School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences at Virginia Tech University. The school’s Center for Injury Biomechanics is home to the nation’s largest private helmet testing lab in Blacksburg, Virginia.

That’s where Virginia Tech researchers have conducted comprehensive testing on football helmets – both in the lab and on the football field.

Dr. Stefan Duma conducts research at the Virginia Tech helmet testing lab.

They placed accelerometers in the helmets of football players to record and measure the acceleration of their heads during each impact in a football game. The scientists then matched the data to specific incidents of head injury, allowing them to develop a testing protocol that shows how effective a helmet is in reducing head acceleration and the likelihood of a concussion.

“We started doing this back in 2003 because when it came to football helmets, there was no data available for anybody,” Duma said. “It was kind of stunning that you couldn’t find any information anywhere about the quality of the helmets.”

That has changed dramatically. Armed with more than a decade of data, Duma and his team of researchers now test every new adult-model football helmet 120 times before releasing its safety rating.

Each helmet receives one of six ratings:

5-stars:  Best available
4-stars:  Very good
3-stars:  Good
2-stars:  Adequate
1-star:   Marginal
NR:       Not Recommended

Simply put: the more stars awarded, the better the helmet and the more it protects the head from acceleration and injury during a sudden hit.

“The difference between a 5-star helmet and a 1-star helmet is dramatic,” explained Duma. “The better helmets will reduce your risk of concussion by over 50-percent.  When we did our first tests, half of the helmets being used by the Virginia Tech football team were 1-star helmets. We made a phone call [to the athletic department] and later that same day, we switched and got rid of all of them.”

Duma advises other schools to do the same, and he believes parents should demand that schools provide high-rated helmets for student athletes.

“If your kid's wearing a 1-star helmet, you should be very unhappy about that. You should be involved with that school to get rid of those helmets,” he said.

According to Virginia Tech researchers, any helmet rated 2-stars and below should be replaced by a higher-quality helmet.

Indiana’s football helmets

13 Investigates discovered some of the state’s largest school districts have been relying on helmets that fall into Virginia Tech’s low-rated categories.

Through a public records request sent to 66 school districts throughout central Indiana, WTHR identified at least 20 schools that have assigned hundreds of 1-star, 2-star and “Not Recommended” football helmets to some of their players.

They include schools in Indianapolis, Anderson, Greencastle, Noblesville and Muncie.

Some of the schools have just a few of the low-rated helmets. Others, like Anderson High School, equip 2/3 of their players in helmets that researchers consider problematic.

“This is the first time that I had seen this,” said Stephen Schindler, athletic director at Anderson High School, which has 45 2-star Schutt Air Advantage football helmets. “We understand the importance of helmet safety as concussions are a hot topic currently.”

More than a quarter of helmets used by Seymour High School tested poorly enough by Virginia Tech researchers to be rated as “Not Recommended.”

And on the west side of Indianapolis, at Chapel Hill 7th & 8th Grade Center in Wayne Township, more than half of the helmets assigned to students are Riddell VSR4 models, which received a 1-star rating.

“My son, who played here in 2003, wore one of those helmets and I didn’t have a problem with it,” said Ben Davis High School football coach Mike Kirschner, who works with all of the school football programs in Wayne Township. He believes the lower-rated helmets are acceptable for use at a middle school level.

Ben Davis football coach Mike Kirschner says his high school will now stop its few remaining 1-star rated helmets.

“I think it goes back a little bit to the impact of the game. A kindergartner isn’t going to have the impact of, say, a high school player or a college player. The impact that they might have using their head is different than a little kid's impact where they don't run very fast and they just kind of bump into each other, so the reality is I think at the level of middle school, those are still safe helmets,” Kirschner said. “Now if this were a high school kid, I wouldn’t want him wearing that,” he added.

But the 1-star helmets Kirschner referenced are still in use at Ben Davis High School – more than three years after the helmet received its low rating.  While the vast majority of Ben Davis helmets are highly-rated 4-star and 5-star models, the school district says it still uses at least 6 of the Riddell VSR4 helmets for its high school players, and Kirschner says he has occasionally had to assign an Adams A2000 Pro Elite helmet rated as “Not Recommended” for players who require an XXXL-size helmet.

After learning of the concerns shared by Virginia Tech researchers, the coach said those helmets will no longer be used for his high school program.

“After hearing that, I would say the faster I can replace them, the better,” Kirschner said. “I probably wouldn’t use them now. I’m probably going to put them on the shelf. Not probably. I am going to put them on a shelf. Now the middle school [helmets], I don’t know. That’s a whole different animal… we have a lot of those [1-star helmets] and that’s a huge cost. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars.”

Cost = quality?

Wayne township, like other school districts, faces a challenging reality when it comes to replacing football helmets: the equipment is very expensive and school districts have limited, often-tightening budgets.  

At the same time, Duma says if schools can't afford to replace their low-rated helmets, “then [they] can't afford to play football. It's that simple. I don't want to be the principal that says it's OK to play in a 1-star helmet.”

Some newly-released football helmets cost nearly $400 each.

But over the past 24 months, all major helmet manufacturers have started producing 5-star helmets, and increased protection does not necessarily mean increased cost.

The Adams A2000 Pro Elite helmet, now discontinued after it received a dismal “Not Recommended” rating from Virginia Tech, had a retail price of $200.

Some area high schools are still using “Not Recommended” helmets, 3 years after their dismal safety rating.

The Schutt Air XP Pro VTD, which received Virginia Tech’s highest 5-star impact rating, sells for $200, as well.

“You can buy a $200 bad helmet or you can buy a $200 good helmet. Why wouldn’t you buy the best one you can? Effectively, there’s no real cost difference,” Duma said.

Since Virginia Tech first started rating helmets in 2011, Indiana schools have shifted to safer equipment.

WTHR’s analysis of more than 9500 football helmets currently used by area school districts shows 96% of them are rated as 4-star or 5-star helmets.

“It’s getting harder and harder to sell anything less than a 4-star helmet,” Duma said, smiling. “We think that’s good for consumers.”

Wayne Township has been buying only 4-star and 5-star helmets for several years.

“Obviously we want what’s best for our kids,” Kirschner said.

“We want our players to be as safe as possible at all times. That’s why we’re choosing to transition right now to 5-star helmets,” echoed Southport High School football coach Bill Peebles. Southport is purchasing dozens of top-rated Riddell Revolution Speed helmets. “The players don’t really think twice about what they’re wearing. I think they just trust it’s OK. But we think about it.”

A more violent game

With permission from the coaching staff at Southport and other local high schools, 13 Investigates equipped several players’ helmets with small cameras to document the impact of a tackle from the perspective of a football player. The eye-opening video shows even a “routine” tackle can result in very jarring impacts to the head and neck.

13 Investigates placed tiny cameras on Southport High School football players to document the impact of a routine tackle.

“They are violent hits,” Kirschner said of the tackles he witnesses from the sidelines. “I know we hate to use that word ‘violent’ but there’s no other way to describe it. All the things we do in the off-season have made our kids bigger, faster, stronger, but it has also made the game more violent.”

Because of the risk of injury – and a growing body of data about concussions and how to prevent them – coaches are now focusing not just on helmets, but also on the importance of proper training to help avoid concussions.

Players are instructed to keep their head up during tackles, and to not initiate contact with the crown of the helmet.

“We spend a lot of time teaching proper technique, and that’s really the key to fewer concussions,” Kirschner explained. “It’s a whole lot different than when I was playing, but what we teach now is a lot better.”

Rating backlash

All football helmets approved for school play must have a seal of approval from the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. NOCSAE sets minimum performance standards for protective equipment such as football helmets.

But the ratings from Virginia Tech show that some helmets bearing the NOCSAE seal provide only marginal or unsatisfactory protection against concussions.

“What NOCSAE promoted was that all helmets were equal. What we did was develop a system to see if that was true,” Duma explained. “What we found is helmets are not the same. Some are much better than others, and some are worse – not just a little bit worse but dramatically worse.”

NOCSAE has been very vocal in its criticism of the Virginia Tech rating system.

“NOCSAE does not recommend that parents and athletes form decisions on the safest and most effective equipment based on any single individual data point, rating, or measurement, including the Virginia Tech STAR football helmet rating system. Doing so may lead to inaccurate conclusions that one helmet brand or model has a measurably higher level of concussion protection than another for a particular athlete,” the organization states on its website, pointing out that the rating system developed by Virginia Tech is based upon data for a college football player wearing an adult large helmet. “There is no indication from the STAR system or published methodology that a large size in one model will test the same as a medium or small or youth size in the same model, and to assume that the STAR value will apply across the board for all sizes of the same model is not safe, and potentially harmful.”

Riddell, one the nation’s leading football helmet manufacturers which has helmets that have tested at both ends of the Virginia Tech ratings scale, provided WTHR with a statement that also advises consumers to consider multiple factors when choosing a football helmet.

Duma points out that its rating system is not intended to be used for youth-size helmets (that research is now ongoing), and he defends his university’s independent rating system as scientifically proven.

“It’s been peer-reviewed as high up as the Institute of Medicine, and every time it’s been shown to be a valid measure of acceleration. That is the fundamental premise: lower head acceleration is good. No one debates that anymore. That’s the fundamental science, and we have years of data and science to back that up.”

No perfect helmet

Researchers and doctors are quick to point out there is no such thing as a concussion-proof football helmet.

Hayden Fain learned that the hard way.

Last year, while playing freshman football at Ben Davis, Fain suffered a severe concussion that sidelined him for months.

“My hands got real shaky and I could not feel them at all. Instantly I could tell I was not right physically and mentally,” Fain recalls. “I just laid back down and didn’t know what to do.”

The concussion occurred while Fain was scrambling for a fumble. Another player landed on Hayden’s neck, just below the 5-star helmet purchased by his parents.

Even though a top-rated helmet did not prevent Fain’s injury, concussion specialist Henry Feurer says helmets with a higher rating are still worth the investment.

“We know that we’re not eliminating concussions, but let’s put [football players] in something that has a better chance of lessening the blow to the brain every time they hit their heads,” said Feurer, a Methodist Sports Medicine doctor who has specialized in concussions for more than 40 years. “We know that concussions are less with those better helmets, and that’s what they should be wearing. I would want [schools] to upgrade. I would want them to get 4- or 5-star helmets, for sure.”

But knowing the makes, models and ratings of helmets at your child’s school can be very difficult.

“It's tough to find out. They're not putting that information out there for you.,” said Hayden’s father, David. 

“I think a lot of the kids, they don’t know the difference, and most parents don’t know the difference, either,” agreed Hayden’s mother, Misty. “Absolutely, parents want to know. Football is going to come and go, but in reality, this is our son’s life and his health.”

New tool for parents

The lack of information for parents prompted 13 Investigates to compile helmet data from central Indiana school districts. WTHR has used that information to create a searchable football helmet rating database. It allows parents to instantly check which helmets are used at more than 140 Indiana schools, and it includes Virginia Tech’s detailed safety rating information for each helmet.

You can click here to access the database.

Most school districts responded to WTHR’s request for information and, like Ben Davis High School, several of the schools now using low-rated helmets have informed Eyewitness News that they plan to take action following this report.

  • Noblesville and Plainfield Schools say they will remove all 2-star and 1-star helmets from their middle schools.
  • Anderson Community Schools removed four "Not Recommended" helmets from its high school program, and five of its 2-star helmets are being replaced. The school district says it is working to replace the remaining 40 helmets that have a 2-star rating.
  • Indianapolis Public Schools will no longer use any of the “Not Recommended” helmets at Broad Ripple High School, and it has stopped using ten 2-star helmets at Arsenal Tech High School.
  • Perry Meridian High School is removing all 2-star helmets from its inventory.

Schools withhold information

Some 5-star rated football helmets cost as little as $200 – less than the cost of low-rated helmets.

Some school districts do not want to release their football helmet information.

Rather than provide details about their football helmets, MSD Franklin Township and MSD Washington Township challenged WTHR’s public records request, informing Eyewitness News that they did not have a list of their currently-used helmets and that they did not want to produce that information. (State law allows public institutions to do so, so WTHR has submitted additional requests to those school districts to obtain other documentation that would provide the details 13 Investigates wants to provide the public.) 

Hamilton Southeastern Schools provided partial information, but not sufficient details to provide full public disclosure. WTHR has also followed up with HSE to obtain those additional details, and the information will be added to the WTHR football helmet database when it is available.

Eyewitness News also requested helmet information from the area’s private high schools, which are not required to follow the state’s Access to Public Records Act. Three of the private schools – Cardinal Ritter, Roncalli and Bishop Chatard – quickly disclosed the types of helmets they use, and that information has been included in WTHR’s online database.  Heritage Christian High School declined to share information about its football helmets. Four other schools -- Cathedral, Guerin Catholic, Lutheran and Scecina – have not responded to WTHR’s request for information.

Football helmet ratings