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Seeing STARs
Local schools, organizations speak up about helmet safety
With a rise in concussion reports, player safety has moved to the forefront of football discussions, particularly helmet safety and what teams and coaches can do to prevent traumatic brain injuries. - photo by Darrell Everidge

Player safety has moved to the forefront of football discussions at all levels, with head and brain safety the key issue.

While the National Football League has taken steps in highlighting player safety with recent rule changes ranging from how defensive players hit to how players can return kickoffs, are these same steps being taken at the high school level, where so many future stars make a name for themselves on the gridiron?

Atlanta NBC affiliate 11 Alive recently investigated some of Atlanta’s top high schools and how their helmets stacked up against their peers', but The News has gone further, focusing on the impact of the study in Newton and Rockdale counties, while investigating how local football teams are keeping their players safe.

With the thousands of dollars spent yearly on athletic equipment and maintenance, how do our local schools stack up against the rest?

Rating system

The 11 Alive investigation gathered helmet information from almost 200 metro Atlanta high schools, including Alcovy, Eastside, Rockdale County, Salem and Heritage high schools. Data for Newton High School was not included in the initial investigation, but The News has received the Rams’ helmet inventory for this past season.

Overall, four of the six local schools had two-star rated helmets in their inventory, helmets that fell below the recommended STAR value.

One of the leading helmet safety rating systems developed in the last five years began at Virginia Tech. Researchers at Virginia Tech and Wake Forest University have developed the STAR rating system, determining which helmets best reduce concussion risks.

A helmet’s STAR value, much like the stars that dominate high school recruit rankings, is determined for each model helmet and is derived through 120 impacts tested on three new helmets of each model.

The STAR value formula takes into consideration helmet impact location, impact height, impact exposure, concussion injury risk and peak resultant acceleration.

 A five-star helmet is considered to provide the greatest protection, while the one-star is deemed the least effective at preventing concussions. A five-star rated helmet has a STAR value of .3 or less, while a one-star helmet has a STAR value of .7 or greater.

The STAR rating system has been produced since 2011 and primarily focuses on adult football helmets.

National statistics

The Centers for Disease Control has taken action over the last decade with its Heads Up initiative to raise awareness about traumatic brain impacts (TBIs) in sports, including concussions.

The CDC has found that emergency departments treat more than 170,000 sports- and recreation-related brain traumas annually in children and adolescents and that number is continuing to rise.

Males lead the group with more than 71 percent of all documented TBI-related injuries, while females are more likely to sustain sports- and recreation-related TBIs playing soccer, basketball or cycling.

For males, the leading TBI culprit makes its home on the gridiron, as football and cycling account for the majority of male TBI-related injuries.

Local impact

At the local level, Eastside, Alcovy Newton, and Rockdale County high schools were found to have two-star helmets in their 2013 inventory. All three schools used the same two-star model, the Schutt Air Advantage Helmet.

At Eastside, the Eagles documented five different helmet models that were in use during the 2013 season, including the Schutt DNA, Riddell Revolution, Riddell 360 and Riddell VS4 helmet models along with the Air Advantage helmet.

The Riddell 360 model was given a five-star rating, while the Revolution and DNA models earned four-star and three-star ratings, respectively.

The Riddell VS4 model, which was purchased in 2005, received a one-star rating. The Eagles had three VS4 model helmets listed in their inventory this past season.

Alcovy used three helmet models in 2013, including the Air Advantage model. The Tigers also used the Revolution and Schutt DNA Pro+ models, which received four-star and three-star ratings, respectively.

Newton listed five different helmet types in its inventory during the 2013 season, including the Schutt Air Advantage helmet. The Rams listed 10 of the two-star models in their inventory this season, with purchase years ranging from 2007 to 2009. Newton’s inventory did include two five-star models: the Riddell 360 and the Riddell Revolution Speed, accounting for 42 percent of its total inventory.

The Rams’ inventory also featured 45 Riddell Revolution model helmets, a four-star rated helmet, and 15 Schutt Air XP helmets which received a three-star rating.

Rockdale County High School presented the most eclectic inventory of helmets, using seven different helmet models in 2013. Six of the Bulldogs’ seven models were rated at three stars and above. Only the Bulldogs’ Air Advantage model received the two-star rating, while the Revolution and Schutt ION received four-star ratings. Rockdale had one helmet model, the Schutt DNA Recruit, which was not tested.

Salem and Heritage high schools used just one helmet model each in 2013. The Seminoles used the Rawlings Impulse helmet this past season, while the Patriots wore the Revolution model. Both helmets received four-star ratings.

Coaches respond

While some might consider the use of the two-star helmets to be risky, local coaches said that the equipment the school provides the players is purchased with safety in mind.

“There are a lot of factors that go into the equipment we buy,” Eastside coach Rick Hurst said. “We’re still trying to figure out exactly what goes into the STAR rating test. The majority of the helmets we used this past season earned the three-star approval.”

Hurst said that when the two-star model helmets were purchased, they were the top-of-the-line model on the market. But, like many things in our fast-paced society, technology has greatly altered helmet structure and function in a short amount of time.

“In the late 2000s, these were our top-of-the-line-helmets,” Hurst said. “Eventually, they did get discontinued, but these helmets were purchased knowing that they were safe for our kids to use. I think a lot of people don’t understand what goes into purchasing these helmets. We do our research and due diligence – no one wants to see an injury.

“Just like in everything else, the technology we have is better now,” he said. “These helmets are discontinued after 10 years of use, but they do have to go through their life cycle. We had 11 helmets kicked out before the start of this past season and we’ll have more kicked out after this year.”

Alcovy coach Kirk Hoffman agreed with Hurst, saying that schools have a hard time keeping up with the technological advances in the sport year after year.

“You have to realize that a lot of these helmets we used were purchased when we opened the school in 2006,” Hoffman said. “How many of the helmets they tested and rated five-stars were even around then?”

Hoffman said he sees the value in the Virginia Tech test, but says that local schools follow national guidelines in helmet safety.

“The test is good – any test that puts an emphasis on player safety is good, but as a school and as a coach, you often don’t have the resources to reach every goal you want,” he said. “Do we want every player to have a five-star rated helmet? You bet we do. But, you don’t always have the funding. What we do, however, is make sure that all of our helmets meet national guidelines every year. If those helmets do not meet the guidelines, they’re tossed and we get new ones.”

National guidelines

Hoffman said that by law, schools are required to meet the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment guidelines before football equipment can be used.

Helmets must pass the NOCSAE guidelines before spring practice or they are discarded as unfit to use. This reconditioning process is one that all five schools went through before the start of the 2013 season.

According to the NOCSAE guidelines, helmets are tested for standard performance in game situations before earning recertification.

The following are guidelines that helmets going through recertification must pass be to earn the NOCSAE seal of approval:

• Helmet configuration must be the same as originally certified.

• All components must function as originally certified.

• Helmet shells must be free from cracks.

• Helmets must be able to withstand all impacts at an acceptable standard impact.

During recertification, helmets undergo front, side, rear and top impact tests, and, if they pass, receive a permanent replica of the NOCSAE logo on the helmet that includes the name of the recertifying firm and the year of recertification.

Hoffman and Hurst said the recertification program is standard at their schools.

“Every January, Riddell comes in and takes our helmets and reconditions them,” Hoffman said. “They have to meet those guidelines to be reused again. If a helmet isn’t considered safe, they are taken out. Every helmet we have here meets those safety standards. That’s all we can do with these helmets – meet the standards that have been set.”

Cost of safety

Rockdale County alone had 90 helmets reconditioned this past season, including removal/inspection of interior parts, removal/inspection of face protectors and shell preparation. The reconditioning process kicked out 11 unusable helmets that the Bulldogs replaced this season. The total cost of reconditioning Rockdale’s helmets this past season - $5,396.63.

Rockdale also ordered 27 new Rawlings Impulse model helmets at a cost of $135 per helmet, totaling $3,645. The Bulldogs’ 11 discarded helmets included three Air Advantage models, six DNA models and two DNA Recruit models. The oldest of the models dated back to 2005, within the 10-year manufacture’s limit.

Salem High School also purchased 14 Rawlings Impulse helmets, at a price of $109 per helmet, for a total of $1,526.

Heritage purchased 52 new helmets since August 2012 for a total cost of $9,037, while spending $3,998 reconditioning 80 helmets last spring. The Patriots have 100 total Riddell Revolution helmets in their inventory that are either new or recertified.

In Newton County, the Rams spent the most this past offseason reconditioning and purchasing new helmets, spending $6.775.30 to recondition 94 helmets last spring. Nine of Newton High’s helmets were rejected, but the Rams supplemented that loss with 15 new Riddell 360 helmets, which received a five-star rating, for $4,697.46. In total, the Rams spent $11,472.76.

Eastside also had a combination of new and reconditioned helmets in 2013, spending $4,691 in reconditioning its current inventory. The Eagles spent just over $2,400 in new helmets this past season, bringing their total helmet cost to $7,111 in 2013.

Alcovy did not purchase new helmets in 2013, but spent a total of $5,421 in helmet reconditioning.

Hoffman said that schools have to weigh the cost of the helmets they purchase and replace, although the Virginia Tech study found that some helmets, including the four-star Rawlings Impulse, can be purchased more cheaply than some two-star helmets.

“Schools do have to take into account the cost of purchasing new helmets,” Hoffman said. “Helmets range between $150-$300 per helmet and it’s a cost to the schools. When you send off 90-100 helmets to be reconditioned each year, it costs money.”

Hurst and Hoffman both agreed that coaches in Newton and Rockdale Counties put their players’ safety above all else.

“I think for the most part, every school wants to make sure that what we dress our kids in is the safest equipment possible,” Hoffman said. “No one wants to cut corners. When our products are not safe, we take them out of the inventory. We can only go through the processes and procedures we have in place, and we make sure that these companies say our equipment is safe. It’s a blessing to know that our equipment every year is certified and that our players are protected on the field.”

Schools' stances

Rockdale County Board of Education Public Relations Director Cindy Ball said that the Rockdale County Public Schools system is aware of the investigation findings and is taking appropriate measures to eliminate the Bulldogs’ two-star helmets.

Thirty-three helmets that were deemed two-star quality have been removed from the Bulldogs’ inventory.

“We have already removed the two-star helmets from the school’s inventory and are in the process of replacing those helmets,” Ball said. “We will also go through the rest of all of our schools’ inventories and make sure that we do not have any two-star, one-star or not-recommended helmets. We didn’t have any of those helmets reported at Salem or Heritage High Schools, but we want to get our hands on every single helmet to make sure that they are safe for our players.”

The Rockdale County Board of Education presented a slide show about the helmets for the community at the organization’s regular session meeting on Feb. 27.

Rockdale County Public Schools Executive Director of Support Services Dr. Garrett Brundage said that the initial investigation has given the school system an opportunity to examine the scope of the study and determine how it impacts the student-athletes in Rockdale County. Brundage said that the county will take “appropriate actions” as needed.

Since the release of the initial investigation, Alcovy and Eastside have joined Rockdale County in removing the two-star Air Advantage helmets.

Youth level helmets

One area the Virginia Tech study has yet to release findings in is in the area of youth football helmets. The organization collected youth football data in 2013 and will release new research methods in 2014. Helmet ratings for youth football helmets will be available in the spring of 2015.

Newton County Recreation Commission Recreation Coordinator Jud Hall said that the commission's youth football helmets are subject to many of the same guidelines and tests as high school helmets.

“Every helmet we use is NOCSAE certified and they undergo the same sort of testing high school helmets go through,” Hall said. “They are certified and their recertification logo is molded into our helmets.”

The Newton County Recreation Commission had almost 500 players participate in its football program this past fall. Hall said that around 400 helmets were recertified this past year and that 60 new helmets were purchased.

The Recreation Commission said that recertification of helmets cost the program between $4,000 and $5,000 this past year.

“Every helmet we have goes through the recertification process and if a helmet is not deemed fit, we throw it out,” Hall said. “The helmets have a life span of about 10 years if they are taken care of. We also make sure that we use youth helmets, unless there is an exceptional need for an adult helmet for a player, so that we keep our players as safe as possible.”

Hall said that player safety is paramount to the commission’s mission.

“If you don’t protect your kids, no one wants to be in your program,” Hall said. “Who wants to be in a program that doesn’t value the safety of its kids? Safety is our number one concern.”

Combating concussions

Newton and Rockdale County coaches said they believe that their respective school systems are doing their best to combat head trauma and concussions.

Both school systems feature on-site athletic trainers at most sporting events, including a dedicated athletic trainer at each school in Newton County, and have drafted county protocols for how to handle concussions before, during and after athletic contests.

“If you go back and look at what Newton County has done over the last two years, we’ve focused a lot on player safety,” Hoffman said. “We’ve added full-time athletic trainers at each school and have developed a great relationship with Newton Medical. We’ve also seen facility upgrades at Sharp Stadium, including our playing surface. Our playing surface is one of the best in the state and that all goes back to player safety.

“I believe the Newton County Board of Education has accelerated these changes at a much faster rate than most school systems,” he said.

Brundage added that Rockdale County’s concussion guidelines go above and beyond the Georgia High School Association requirements.

“We ensure that all coaches are equipped with Impact Testing to determine whether or not a student has suffered a concussion,” he said. “In addition, we provide coaches, administrators, athletic directors, parents and student-athletes updated education material that’s aligned with state and national practices.”

Current GHSA rules require schools to adhere to four main guidelines when dealing with concussion related injuries, stating that:

• Any athlete suspected of having a concussion should be evaluated by an appropriate health-care professional that day.

• No athlete should return to play or practice on the same day after a concussion has been diagnosed.

• Any athlete with a concussion should be medically cleared by an appropriate health-care professional prior to resuming participation in practice or competition.

• The prior guidelines should be applied in both practices and scrimmages.

Hurst, who sat one of his senior starters during the 2013 season after a concussion injury, said that players are protected by these guidelines.

“We lost our running back for a few games this season due to a concussion, and we treated his injury seriously,” Hurst said. “We followed county guidelines and he couldn’t return until he was cleared by a medical specialist and passed the concussion tests the county has set up. The rule is a good one because it not only reels in coaches who may try to force a player back out, but it keeps the kids from staying quiet and trying to play with as injury as well.”

Newton Medical Center sports medicine specialist Dr. Ryan Tomlins said that educating coaches, parents and players may be the best resource in battling concussions.

“We are really trying to push educating not only parents, but coaches and staff that are around athletes,” Tomlins said. “We have begun that process and hope to continue to do it. In the near future, we hope to have a town- hall type of meeting for coaches, physical education teachers and other staff that serve athletes to educate them. They’re not expected to diagnose concussions, but we want them to be aware of signs and symptoms so they can get kids to health-care providers if needed.”

The Newton County Recreation Commission also educates coaches before the beginning of the season on concussion injuries and provides parents and players with literature on head trauma before the start of their football seasons.

“We have a coaching certification class that coaches participate in before the season where we discuss head-related injuries and concussion symptoms,” Hall said. “We try to bring the coaches up to date on the recent medical findings so that they’re informed as well as the staff is.”

The commission’s parent/athlete concussion information sheet details the signs and symptoms of a concussion, as well as the dangers associated with not reporting concussion-related symptoms.

Continued controversy

Despite the STAR ratings’ findings, both NOSCAE and helmet manufacturer Schutt have cautioned players, coaches and parents about the rating system itself.

Schutt Director of New Product Development Cortney Warmouth said in 2012 that the Virginia Tech study was “limited.”

“We believe the assumptions behind the study have been flawed from the start because it fails to acknowledge that current science has yet to pin down the actual injury mechanics that cause concussions,” Warmouth said. “The STAR rating system is limited in too many ways because it considers only linear force impacts (impacts that act in only one direction) and totally ignores many other factors that are involved in a concussive event.”

Similar caution was urged by NOCSAE, which said that schools should not judge the effectiveness of a product based on any single data point.

“…NOCSAE does not recommend that parents and athletes form decisions of the softest and most effective equipment based on any single individual data point, rating, or measurement, including the Virginia Tech STAR football helmet rating system,” the organization said. “This 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 STAR rating system research group did caution that any player in any sport can sustain a head injury even with the best protection, adding that no helmet can prevent all concussions – though it states that its top-rated helmets may better manage the impact energies which are correlated to concussion risks.

“No helmet has ever been shown to completely prevent concussions,” Tomlins said. “All of the work that’s been done has been to prevent skull fractures and traumatic brain injuries and we’ve seen those cut down. Concussions, unfortunately, aren’t that simple and they can occur no matter what type of helmet you’re using.”

With an ever increasing diligence to protect players on the field, the battle in the science lab and along the helmet production line may be the greatest victory in the sport of football when all is said and done – whether it comes with stars or not.