Defenders investigation reveals metro Detroit schools using lower-rated football helmets

Virginia Tech gives football helmets star ratings based on how well they reduce the risk of concussion

DETROIT – Researchers at Virginia Tech are testing and rating football helmets based on how well they reduce the risk of concussion.

There is no such thing as a concussion-proof helmet, VA Tech's research measures the effectiveness helmets like those used by local high school football teams.

"Our basic goal is to just help people buy better helmets," said Stefan Duma, the Harry C. Wyatt professor and department head of Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Tech.

Duma is the helmet testing lab's project leader. They have been looking at helmets for the past 11 years.  In 2011, the project released its first adult football helmet ratings, and have continued to update the list every year since. Their most recent results were released last week.

"We have sensors in Virginia Tech players and a range of different schools around the country," said Duma. "We took all that data so we know exactly how many times and how hard players are hit. We took that data into the laboratory, recreated a laboratory test that matches that exposure. So when we test a helmet in a lab, we're testing it in a way that the players see on the field."

Duma wanted to make the ratings consumer friendly.

"We came into the lab and we created a system to rate helmets and make it consumer friendly," said Duma. "Five stars, four stars, three stars, just like buying a car this helmet protects you better than the lower rated helmet. But, also just like buying a car, these helmets are not concussion-proof. You can buy a five-star car and people still die in that, but the risk is lower. You buy a five-star helmet you may still get a concussion, but your risk is lower than the very low performing helmets." 

According to Virginia Tech's website, helmets with more stars provide a reduction in concussion risk compared to helmets with less stars. They test helmets that are currently available for sale on the market.

The best-performing helmets received a five-star rating, four-star helmets are considered very good, the three-star models are good, and two-stars are adequate. One-star rated helmets offer only marginal protection. They are not a recommended category.

"The differences between the lower one-star and the upper-end five-star are dramatic," said Duma. "The better helmets are a little bigger, they have in general, more padding, but it's also optimized.  As you go down, the helmets get smaller, less padding and that in general will increase your head acceleration."

Virginia Tech gave the Riddell VSR4 a one-star rating.

"Playing in a helmet that is a one-star is much more risky than playing in one of the five-star helmets," said Duma. "In a general sense, moving from the bottom to the top reduces your risk by 50 percent."  

Local investigation

The Local 4 Defenders contacted public school districts in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties and asked for makes and models of helmets used by high school teams.

Our investigation found most schools are using more than one brand of helmet with different star ratings. It also found that many schools using the five- and four-star helmets that Virginia Tech recommends.

However, the Defenders also found some schools using the Riddell VSR4 helmet, that VA Tech gave a one-star rating.

In Wayne County we discovered 13 school using the 1 star helmet, all from Detroit Public Schools:

  • Cass Technical High School
  • Central High School
  • Cody High School
  • Denby High School
  • Ford High School
  • Martin Luther King High School
  • Mumford High School
  • Northwestern High School
  • Osborn High School
  • Pershing High School
  • Renaissance High School
  • Southeastern High School
  • Western High School 

Local 4 reached out to Detroit Public Schools and they released the following response:

"The Office of Athletics and its football coaches are aware of the Virginia Tech Study or Rating of football helmets that went out for public notice in May of 2013. Each year we send our football helmets to the manufacturer for reconditioning. Riddell inspects our helmets and determines which of them are not worthy of replacing, then those helmets are destroyed. 

The District has the option to replace such helmets with ones that have star ratings ranging from 1-5 according to the Virginia Tech method of rating safety standards of various manufactured helmets. 

In response to the FOIA statement pertaining to a list of DPSL schools that use the lower end of helmets rated 1-2 stars (marginal-adequate). 

It should be noted, we had 823 total helmets that were submitted to Riddell for reconditioning and only 35 or 4% were rejected for being beyond repair or out of compliance due to age, leaving a total of seven hundred eighty-eight (788) functioning helmets. Six hundred-six (606) or 77% of our school's helmets have 3, 4 or 5 star ratings (good, very good or best) and one hundred eighty-two (182) or 23% have 1-2 star ratings (marginal-adequate).  Since the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest rating system was released last year, we have found that our football coaches in collaboration with the MHSAA (Michigan High School Athletic Association (Concussion Awareness Support Courses) and Riddell have greatly decreased the number of helmets used that fall in the lower standards of safety ratings.  We will continue to review our process and the costs associated with replacing the lower end but still adequate helmets, until all of our helmets fall within the 3-5 star ratings of good, very good or very best for our DPS student-athletes to ensure their highest standards of safety" -- Alvin Ward, executive director, Office of Athletics.

Local 4 also found the Riddell VSR4 used in Macomb County at Utica Community Schools and Lincoln High School, which is in the Van Dyke Public Schools district.

Utica Community Schools released the following response:

Utica Community Schools follows a systematic and ongoing replacement and reconditioning cycle for its helmets to ensure equipment meets newer safety recommendations.  As a result of the replacement process, 96 percent of the helmets in the district's inventory are rated as four stars or higher in the recent study. That percentage will increase substantially with the purchase of approximately 80 new helmets for the fall season. In addition, the district annually reconditions and recertifies its helmets. This reconditioning includes replacement of padding and surface material and a "drop test" process to measure impact. This is an extra step the district follows each year to help protect the safety of its student athletes and ensure helmets meet National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) standards.

The Superintendent for Van Dkye Public Schools told the Local 4 Defenders that because of the ratings we showed them they have discarded the helmets and will be replacing them.

Less Than One-Star

Virginia Tech has one helmet listed as "Not Recommended," the Adams A2000 Pro Elite.

Local 4 Defenders investigation found Oxford High School using it.  The school district said they were unaware of the study.

"Yes, that helmet is an Adams Pro Elite Model," said Michael D. Watson, the athletic director for Oxford Community Schools. "I don't know about the Virginia Tech Study, but we accept helmets back into inventory based on the professional recommendations of our reconditioning and helmet supply company -- Riddell. They are an industry leader in the reconditioning and manufacture of football helmets and safety equipment." 

The Unknowns

Chippewa Valley Schools, Southfield Public Schools and the River Rouge School District were unable to provide information on football helmets to Local 4. 

Chippewa Valley said the helmets were out for reconditioning and Southfield said it did not have records to fulfill our request.  Local 4 has made available all the information Oakland, Macomb and Wayne county schools provided so parents can compare that information to the helmets rated by Virginia Tech.

More research required

While the Virginia Tech ratings can help consumers make a decision about which helmet to buy, critics argue it should not be the only factor.

The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) said it supports and encourages the scientific research being done at Virginia Tech, but said they believe there are limitations to Virginia Tech's ranking system.

Among the limitations NOCSAE's is concerned about:

  • Only adult-size large helmets were tested on college players;
  • The STAR value itself is a theoretical calculation that is based on a probabilistic analysis of impact exposure and injury risk at the collegiate level;
  • There is an infinite number of ways to test helmets;
  • Helmets were not tested under game conditions.

Under the NOCSAE standards, which all manufactures are required to meet, helmets either pass or fail based on their ability to reduce impact forces to the head as measured by the severity index.

In its statement regarding the 2013 Virginia Tech ratings, NOCSAE said: "Unless the limitations of the STAR ranking system are considered, the potential exists for players, parents, coaches, and administrators to overemphasize the role of the helmet in protecting against concussions."

Read NOCSAE's full statement.

Bob Fawley, owner of Capitol Varsity Sports in Oxford, Ohio, sells helmets and reconditions them to meet NOCSAE standards.  

"I've just watched parents come in who have told them they have got to have this helmet because of this rating system and at this point I don't have enough proof to believe it, so I hope that everybody just keeps and open mind because its an ongoing project for everybody and were just trying to get better in the industry," said Fawley.

Virginia Tech said the ratings are independent of any helmet manufacturer.

One criticism of the ratings is that the tests only look at linear head acceleration and not rotational acceleration. 

Duma said they hope to new ratings out next year that will look at rotational force too.

They will also be testing helmets for other sports including hockey.

Duma says he would not put his own children in a one-star helmet. But he also wants everyone to remember helmets as just one of three roles of protection. 

"Whatever your kid is going to play, you know these three roles of protection, you got to have the right rules, you got to have the right coaching technique and you've got to have the right equipment," said Duma.

You can review all of Virginia Tech's 2014 football helmet ratings their website.

You can also review all the data obtained by Local 4 to see which helmets your school districts are using: