Football helmet safety: Schools react to our 13News Now Investigation


by David Alan, 13News Now

Posted on May 15, 2014 at 5:51 PM

Updated Thursday, May 29 at 5:55 PM

NORFOLK -- A recent 13News Now Investigation that identified high schools in South Hampton Roads using football helmets, which fall far short of Virginia Tech’s five-star rating system, was news to some school districts and parents.

Now, some districts are making changes and phasing out their low-rated, two-star helmets and getting rid of their one-star helmets.

More than a decade ago, researchers at Virginia Tech began studying football helmet safety.  By drop testing helmets and measuring impact, researchers rated helmets from 1 (not recommended) to 5 (best available). Researchers say higher-rated helmets are more likely to reduce the risk of suffering a concussion.

Following our 13News Now Investigation, Virginia Beach City Public Schools and Norfolk Public Schools tell us they’ll phase out their low-rated, two-star helmets. Virginia Beach also says it will get rid of its one-star helmets.

Portsmouth Public Schools Superintendent Dr. David Stuckwisch tells 13News Now the district will replace all helmets with three-star ratings and below with five-star helmets.  He says the process has already begun.

But no school district is taking Virginia Tech’s research more seriously than Currituck County.

Coach John Wheeler told 13News Now the difference between a low-rated one-star helmet and a five-star helmet is "like night and day."

So school officials are pulling all of the low-rated helmets used by student-athletes on the Currituck County high school football team last season and outfitting next year's varsity players in top-rated, Riddell Revolution Speed helmets.

“We want to make sure we are giving our kids the best equipment available. We want to stay on top of the technology,” Coach Wheeler added.

LEARN MORE: Helmet tracker database for Hampton Roads' high schools

The Institute of Medicine calls Virginia Tech's research “theoretically grounded and based on sound principles.”  Eight universities and 15 authors have given it clinical validation.

A poster of Virginia Tech’s five-star rating system hangs in every NFL locker room in the country and the NFL’s all-time sack leader stands behind the research.

“I would pay attention to this rating Virginia Tech has done and listen to the science,” Bruce Smith told 13News Now.

Football helmet safety: Hall of Fame player says parents should be concerned

But school officials in both Suffolk and Hampton dismissed Tech’s helmet safety ratings, telling 13News Now by email that the Virginia Tech helmet study is a "single indicator on helmet safety.”

Both districts went on to say, “We also recognize that some experts have pointed out some limitations with the study.”

Although our investigation found athletes in both school districts using low-rated helmets by Virginia Tech standards, the schools say they take safety seriously. 

"All football helmets purchased are certified as National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment,” Suffolk Schools spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw wrote.

Chesapeake also says all of the football helmets worn by their student-athletes are certified annually by a NOCSAE-approved vendor.

NOCSAE is perhaps the most vocal critic when it comes to the Virginia Tech study. They give a passing grade to all helmets because they all meet a 'basic safety threshold.'

“If you’re on one side of the door, you’re outside. If you’re on the other side of the door, you’re inside. It doesn’t matter whether you’re five steps down or still on the porch,” NOCSAE founder Dave Halstead said. 

NOCSAE says the Virginia Tech study is flawed because it does not consider factors like the weight of a helmet, which increases with better helmets, and how it fits a player.

According to the Virginia High School League, "NOCSAE provides and sets a consistent standard for high school equipment safety."

The VHSL said they also respect Virginia Tech's research and that parents should have as much information as possible to keep student-athletes safe. But their website makes no mention of Virginia Tech's five-star ratings.

VHSL officials also told 13News Now they see no conflict of interest that NOCSAE is funded by the very helmet manufacturers whose equipment they rate for safety.

Virginia Tech stands by their research and the impact they say it’s having.

“I think you need to give credit to the consumers. While there have been critics of the Tech research, it's all been peer reviewed. But the consumers got it and they appreciate that we're doing this,” Virginia Tech researcher Dr. Stefan Duma said.

School officials in Currituck County told 13News Now that based on the reputation of the research at Virginia Tech, they opted to follow the five-star rating system.

“I’m glad someone finally did it. I think this is something that should have been done a long time ago,” Currituck County School Board Member Jonnie Simmons said.

Currituck County also said it’s considering five-star helmets for their JV team, as well as purchasing sensors for inside the helmets to monitor real-time hits.

“When you consider $15,000 out of a $39 million budget, that’s a drop in the bucket,” School Board Chairman Bill Dobney said.

Newport News was the only school district in Hampton Roads where all of their football helmets rated good or better on the Tech rating system.

Football helmet safety: Statements from area schools

On Wednesday, Virginia Tech released their most recent helmet ratings.  Five new helmets meet the five-star mark: Schutt’s Vengeance VTD and AiR XP Pro VTD, Rawlings’ Tachyon, and Xenith’s EPIC and X2E.  Click here for more information.

UPDATE 5/29:  Currituck County football coach John Wheeler tweeted that his team had 60 new top-rated helmets delivered for student-athletes following our 13News Now Investigation.