New helmet tests aimed at stopping teen concussions

Posted July 16, 2014

— Each year, an estimated 250,000 teen boys go to emergency rooms across the United States with sports-related head injuries. About 30 percent of those injuries, approximately 75,000 annually, happen on the football field.

The game is lauded for its speed, power and big hits, but as this next season nears, it is also being examined for its safety measures. WRAL Investigates took a deeper look into helmet safety and the concerns that not enough is being done to keep young players safe.

Clayton High School football coach Randy Pinkowski has seen plenty of changes in helmets since his playing days – and 28 years on the sidelines as a coach.

“Fit is everything when it comes to injury prevention,” said Pinkowski. “Technology has just exploded with ways to protect the player now, and the helmets are a great reflection of that.”

Proper tackling technique and a good helmet can make a major difference when it comes to preventing concussions. Parents and coaches now have a new tool to see how helmets protect against violent collisions.

Wakefield vs Garner 14 Database: Football helmets used by North Carolina high schools

Virginia Tech scientists put out a star rating system on all the helmets on the market. A 5-star rating signifies the best, but there are helmets on the market that fall under the category of "not recommended." What’s more, according to the STAR system, price doesn't necessarily equal protection.

WRAL Investigates sent requests to every high school coach or athletic director in the state about what kind of helmets they use. Most had helmets in the 4- or 5-star categories. At Clayton, the Schutt Air Advantage currently makes up 40 percent of the team's supply. The helmet got a 2-star rating and is deemed "adequate."

Considering fit and functionality, Pinkowski said he isn't convinced one lab's results translate to field safety.

“I have a player who won't wear anything but this helmet because he has a round head,” Pinkowski said. “I don't think there's enough information out there to scrap this helmet completely yet.”

Doctor Jeff Bytomski, who helps coordinate the Duke Sports Concussion Clinic, believes the Virginia Tech results are valid.

“At least at Virginia Tech, they kind of go just like your car’s 5-star and 4-star ratings down the line,” Bytomski said. “A parent can look that up on the website and see what my kid is wearing.”

But the high school football safety debate goes beyond what type of helmets teens wear. There's growing concern about helmets passed down from year to year.

Helmet safety standards for cushioning were first implemented more than 40 years ago by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE).

Clayton replaces 10 to 15 percent of its helmets each year.

“The one thing I'm looking for is the NOCSAE certification on it,” Pinkowski said.

The impact standards were designed to prevent skull fractures and they've only been tweaked once in the last four decades. If a helmet scores below a 1,200 on the severity index drop test, it passes – above 1,200, it fails. Some argue that 20-year-old threshold is out of date.

“I personally think the severity index is too high anyway,” Bytomski said. “I'd like to see it moved down to 400 or 500.”

With many newer helmets scoring in the 300s and 400s on the severity index test, Brooke de Lench, executive director of the MomsTEAM Institute, wonders why older helmets with lesser ratings still get a passing mark.

Each year, certified companies inspect helmets, removing and sometimes replacing padding and hardware. De Lench thinks that the reconditioning process should be more transparent.

“Who took the paint off? Who put the paint back on? Who took the screws off? The face mask off? Who put them back on?” de Lench inquired. “That gives the person and the company some ownership.”

At Clayton, about half of the helmets are reconditioned each year, depending on usage. Of the 60 schools that responded to WRAL’s request about helmets, most recondition 100 percent of their helmets each year.

Still, national research shows just 3 percent of reconditioned helmets get actual drop tests. If those helmets pass, the whole model line does.

“For used helmets, I think it should be reduced because there are internal fractures that are not always going to show up until you bring that index down a little bit,” de Lench said

While the current standards remain up for debate, concussion awareness, revised tackling and training techniques and helmet technology all continue to make a difference.

“I think (the game) is safer than it ever has been,” Pinkowski said.

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  • vt94hokies Jul 17, 2014

    Great article and presentation on WRAL last evening.