NEW ORLEANS -- There are few places as enviable as a Friday night in Louisiana in the fall and high school football, but, each and every play carries a risk.
“They’re going 100 miles per hour at each other and they’re going to do their best to block them or tackle them and accidents do happen,” said Kenny Kendrick, the coach at Hayne Academy.
And accidents can lead to concussions. It’s gotten to the point that every league from the NFL down to Pop Warner is trying to prevent them and each of those leagues is looking at a point of contact that includes the head and helmet.
“Any time you watch any kind of sports, especially football, the emphasis is on concussions and safety,” said Bonnabel Coach Reggie Rogers. “The emphasis is on concussions and safety.
Tim didn't get up
Tim Robinson of Mobile, Ala. (pictured below) suffered a traumatic brain injury when he made a simple high school tackle in a game at Ladd Peebles stadium.
“I saw Tim’s hand fall down off the side of the stretcher,” said Eveylyn McGhee, Robinson's mother. “Then I knew, and it scared me to death.”
Tim did not get up and is now paralyzed on one side.
His family sued the Illinois helmet maker, Schutt, saying the helmet didn’t do enough to protect him. Schutt settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount of money. Tim’s mom wishes that she knew before the accident what she knows now about high school football helmets and their safety.
“Do your research,” she advised other parents. “Find out what type of helmet it is and what brand it is and how well it’s been tested.”
And with high school football helmet testing, there are only two options – one at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg has been looking into helmet safety since 2003. In 2011, it debuted the first-ever star rating system for high school helmets.
Five stars are the best, a one-star rating is marginal, and an NR is ‘not recommended’ for use at all.
Each helmet is tested 120 times, dropped at different heights and at different angles. The helmet is graded on how it cushions and draws out the impact, which will bring down the acceleration, and, they contend, lower the risk for concussion.
“The differences are dramatic,” said Stefan Duma of Virginia Tech's biomedical engineering department. “That’s really the fundamental message we are trying to send. The difference in acceleration is dramatic between the one-star and the very good four and five stars.”
Acceleration is measured in G’s – for g-forces – and Virginia Tech researchers say concussions start to occur when the helmet measurement hits 100 G’s.
“I can take a drop test for a one-star helmet and I’ll get 150 G’s,” said Duma. “I can replace it with a five-star helmet and I can cut that in half to 75 G’s. Our fundamental point is that there is a huge difference in 150 G’s and 75 G’s. You are now moving below where concussions happen.”
What helmets are being used locally
Eyewitness News decided to look at what type of helmets are being used here in the metro area and how they rate safety-wise. Each public school was asked to provide the helmet brand and model they had in stock.
Virginia Tech researchers feel strongly that schools should only use helmets with a four or five-star rating.
We found 19 schools that only use helmets with a four or five-star rating, but, we also found 19 schools that are using at least some three-star helmets, which are still rated as “good.” (Click on the image to see a list of helmets used at area high schools and the ratings)
At least seven schools used helmets that were two stars, one star or the ‘not recommended.’
We told Bonnabel High School coach Reggie Rogers that his school used both one and two-star rated helmets.
“It does surprise me,” he said. “Had I known there is such a ranking system, coaches are going to think twice about what helmets are purchased in the future.”
To be fair, many coaches had not heard, or knew little about Virginia Tech’s rating system and many of their helmets were purchased before the star system existed. And, while Bonnabel uses helmets that are rated as one and two stars, the majority of their helmets are rated as four stars.
And that was a theme in many of the locker rooms that we looked at. Many schools don’t just use one brand or model. Several, sometimes because a certain brand fits better, but, mostly, it’s because a school typically purchases equipment with the money it raises from games, programs and fundraisers. The top rated helmet costs $374. The best three-star helmet is $174, or about half the price.
“You want the best helmet that you can afford,” said Rogers. “You want to get the safest helmet you can buy with the money that you have… It’s economics.”
What’s interesting about the five-star system is that the same company that makes the highest-rated, five-star helmet – Riddell – also makes the lowest-rated, one-star helmet. Rawlings makes the least expensive helmet on the list, and it’s not low-rated, it’s a four-star. Not everybody believes in the Virginia Tech star system. In fact, some question whether it has any merit at all.
Not everyone agrees with the rating system
Dave Halstead with the National Operating Committee for Standards in Athletic Equipment (NOCSEA), strongly disagrees with the Virginia Tech star system and its conclusions.
NOCSEA is based in Knoxville, Tennessee and its lab is the other main testing site for high school helmets.
“I believe there is a serious disconnect between the star rating system and what mothers are trying to prevent – concussions,” said Halstead. “The star rating system doesn’t have the support in which to do that.”
Every high school helmet must be certified annually and every other year it must be reconditioned to meet the standards set by NOCSEA. They don’t use a star system at all, but a pass-fail. Either the helmet provides good enough protection or it doesn’t. If you meet NOCSEA standards, the helmet is good for use.
The beef they have with Virginia Tech isn’t in its testing, but, the threshold of what becomes a concussion. Tech says that concussions begin around a hit of 100 G’s. Halstead said no one knows where that line is medically and so it’s a premature leap of faith to say one helmet can prevent a concussion over another. They certainly don’t believe helmet makers should be able to market safety based on a star system.
“Scientifically there is no evidence that a re-certified two-star helmet from four years ago is not every bit as good as a brand new helmet. There is no science to support that there is a difference among them.”
But the Virginia Tech researchers believe their numbers do tell an important story.
“You can pass the NOCSEA standard, but by a little bit or a lot,” said Duma. “What we’re saying is that the helmets that pass it be a lot are much better and they’[re dramatically different in acceleration levels.”
After four decades in high school football, McDonogh 35 football coach Wayne Reese says the NOCSEA standard has worked and will continue to work for him.
“Our kids have been successful,” he said. “We have not had one concussion. We get good production out of them during my seven years.”
Under the NOCSEA system, all of Reese’s helmets are fine.
Under the star system, he has four-star helmets, three-star, two-star, one-star and the Adams 2000 helmet, that is not recommended to use at all.
“I disagree with that, because, like I said, let’s go back to experience. I haven’t had any problems with my kids, not one.”
Reese, like many coaches that we talked to, said they will keep an eye on the star system because it is available. And, whether as a coach you believe in it or not, parents will know that it’s out there.”
“If anything happens and these helmets are being worn by their players, I think they’re going to have some things to answer to,” said Rogers. “We don’t want, I don’t want to be responsible totally for a kid getting a concussion for wearing faulty equipment.”
“I think the star rating helps us out,” said Kenny Kendrick. “It will help us determine what helmet we buy now.”
Helmet technology has come a long way in the last few years alone, with the new emphasis on concussions. Still, there is a great divide over the two testing systems. But, where there is divisiveness, there is debate and there is often progress and that can only be seen as a plus for your child’s safety in the future.