High school football helmets rated

Study finds some helmets protect better than others

WINTER PARK, Fla. – After just two football games, several deep scratches mar the paint and stickers on Derek Barden's helmet. The battle scars confirm the Winter Park High School junior has taken at least a few minor hits to the head while playing defensive end for the Wildcats.

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"That's just coming off the line," said Barden, referring to how the scratches appeared on his helmet. "That's getting physical."

When Barden selected his helmet from the high school's equipment room at the beginning of the season, he made sure it fit properly. But the teen did not give much thought to how well the helmet would protect him.

"You think it's going to be safe," said Barden's mom, Sophia. Working in the medical field, she understands that football players are at risk of concussions.

"I'm nervous, as I'm sure other parents are whose kids are out there banging heads," said Sophia Barden.

Since most models of helmets look fairly similar, Barden and his mom assumed they all offered equal protection against concussions. But researchers at Virginia Tech have found that is not the case.

"We were surprised at the wide range of differences," said Dr. Stefan Duma, the head of Virginia Tech's School of Biomedical Engineering. "There were some great helmets, and there were some not-so-good helmets. We wanted to tell consumers which ones were the better ones so they could make an informed choice."

In 2011, Duma and his team created the first-ever STAR rating system to compare the ability of helmets to reduce concussion risk. After subjecting helmets to 120 different impacts by dropping them and striking them from the front, sides and top, engineers aggregated the measurements.

Helmets that performed the best on the impact tests were assigned a 5-Star rating by the Virginia Tech engineers, while those that performed marginally were rated 1-Star. One helmet did so poorly in the study it received no stars.

"It's telling you which helmets are better at lowering head acceleration," said Duma. "If you lower head acceleration, you lower your risk of injury."

However, Duma points out that no helmet can prevent concussions.

"There's a risk of injury with every head impact," he said. "A 5-Star helmet doesn't remove all risk. There's still risk of injury. But what it does, it lowers your risk."

Virginia Tech engineers have evaluated 27 different adult football helmets, with plans to test additional models as manufacturers produce them. Thirteen helmets have been rated 5-Stars, eight are 4-Star, and three have received a 3-Star rating. Currently there is one helmet apiece rated 2-Star, 1-Star, and 0-Star.

In order to find out what types of helmets are used by Central Florida high schools, News 6 submitted public records requests seeking helmet inventory lists from local school districts.

Most of the helmets in use throughout Central Florida have been rated by Virginia Tech, records show. However, school districts also use helmet models that have not undergone testing by the university engineering program. Some schools allow players to purchase their own helmets rather than use equipment owned by the school district.

A least four Central Florida high schools reported owning Riddell's VSR-4 helmet, which received a "marginal" 1-Star rating. A few schools also own the Schutt Air Advantage helmet, which was deemed "adequate" with a 2-Star rating in the Virginia Tech study, records show.  Neither helmet is manufactured anymore.

However, representatives from those school districts insisted those lower-rated helmets are no longer being issued to players, including some that have not been worn in years.  Most schools replace helmets every 10 years.

"At this point there really should not be any kid in those 1-Star helmets," said Duma. "When we look at going from a 1-Star to a 4-Star helmet, you reduce your risk of injury by 50 percent."

At least 20 Central Florida high schools have Schutt's Air XP helmets in their inventory, which received a 3-Star "good" rating from Virginia Tech. Hagerty High School in Seminole County reported the most with 53.

"There's nothing wrong with a 3-Star helmet if it's properly conditioned and maintained," said Glenn Beckmann, Director of Marketing and Communications for Schutt Sports. Although his company has deliberately designed new helmets to receive Virginia Tech's 5-Star rating, their engineers dispute the university's study.

"They've made it too simple," said Beckmann. "The STAR system is not a predictor of a helmet's concussion protection. It's simply not."

A vast majority of the helmets owned by Central Florida public high schools are rated "very good" and "best available" by Virginia Tech engineers. Based on the inventory data provided to News 6, more than 45 percent of high school helmets in Central Florida are rated 4-Stars, and more than 43 percent are 5-Star helmets.

Seminole County Public Schools own the most 5-Star helmets, comprising 56 percent of the district's inventory, records show. One school in Seminole County, Lake Brantley, leads Central Florida with 164 helmets rated 5-Stars.

"We did not factor the Virginia Tech study in our decision-making," said SCPS spokesman Michael Lawrence. "We do, however, have student safety as our number one priority and we have made a conscious decision to only go with what we know to be the safest equipment for our student athletes."

In Central Florida, sports equipment purchasing decisions are typically made by individual schools rather than at the district level. The Florida High School Athletic Association, which governs school sports, requires that football helmets be approved by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.

“Helmets which meet the NOCSAE standard are extremely effective at doing what they are designed to do, limiting linear accelerations that result from impacts to the head and helmet,” said NOCSAE's executive director Mike Oliver in a news release. Although the organization applauds the research conducted by Virginia Tech, NOCSAE believes the STAR ratings may take focus away from other steps it believes have a greater effect on concussion reduction.

"One of the things we stress is that there's a lot of other things that matter besides the helmet," said Duma. The Virginia Tech engineer believes players must intentionally minimize head impacts during games and practices.

"The most important thing is the league rules," said Duma. "How do they construct practices? The second most important thing is the coaching. What kind of drills are you running? And the third layer of protection is the helmet."

Derek Barden said his coaches at Winter Park High School have taught him techniques to minimize concussion risk.

"I don't want to lean in too much. I don't want to use my head too much," said Barden. "I want to (strike an opponent) more on my shoulder pads than on my head."

Barden was not told which model of Riddell helmet he had been issued by the school, and stickers inside the equipment do not provide that information. So News 6 sent photographs of Barden's helmet to a representative with the equipment manufacturer, who confirms he wears a Riddell Revolution.

That model of helmet, which is rated 4-Stars by Virginia Tech, along with the 5-Star Riddell Speed helmet, are the two most popular helmets owned by Central Florida public high schools, records indicate.

Although Barden's mom understands her son is still at risk for a concussion whenever he's on the football field, it gives her peace of mind knowing he wears a highly-rated helmet.

"Your kids go get their uniforms. They get their helmets. You're taking pictures. You're really not thinking about whether it is a 5-Star helmet or not," she said.

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