A recent study by Virginia Tech and Wake Forest has led WKYC to investigate local high school football helmets.
Researchers put 18 popular helmet models to the test, comparing them to see if some would perform better when it comes to protecting athletes.
SPECIAL SECTION: Helmet rating investigation
The helmets were dropped more than 100 times while researchers collected data to see if some could potentially decrease the likelihood of a brain injury or concussion.
MOBILE USERS: http://bit.ly/HelmetSafetyWKYC
They found surprising details that led them to develop a five-star rating system.
Few states have deeper high school football traditions than Ohio.
In just a few months, thousands of local players will be back on the field training for a new season.
It's an exciting sport to watch, but there is no denying the risk of head injury in football is high -- especially for our young players.
When they are hit in the head, their only defense is the helmet they wear.
SEARCH: Find helmet ratings at my school
The results are surprising.
Virginia Tech University is home to the world's largest injury biomechanics group.
They research everything from automobiles to the military, and, for the last 10 years, football helmets.
"The number of head impacts in football dwarfs any other sport. And that's where we really need to look at the equipment and the rules. You have a lot more head impacts," said Dr. Stefan Duma.
Duma and his team of biomechanical engineers have been looking at what helmets offer better protection against concussion.
First they put sensors in football helmets to record how many times a player is hit, in what direction and the magnitude.
Then, using that information, they created a drop test to use on adult helmets most commonly used by high school football teams.
Each model gets tested 120 times, at different heights and different directions.
INTERACTIVE: Helmet rating breakdown by model
The amount of impact absorbed by the helmet is then measured and a star rating from one to five was assigned.
One star is rated marginal. Five star is the best helmet available.
Duma says the findings show a dramatic difference between how much different models cushion the impact.
"For one drop test, I can take a one-star helmet, and I will get 150 g's, replace it with a 5 star helmet, and I can cut that in half and get 75 g's. Our fundamental point is that there is a huge difference between 150 g's and 75 g's," said Duma.
Duma says based on what helmet you use, you can reduce your risk of concussion by more than 50 percent. That's what they've been using to compile a five-star rating system.
"There was no way for consumers to get any idea what helmet was better. It was purely what it looks like, the cost, what the sales rep tells me, so we were the first group to present biomechanical data, and I would absolutely encourage people to use it," said Duma.
Duma and his team tested 18 helmets. One helmet performed so poorly it received no star at all.
After learning about the five-star system, WKYC wanted to see how our high schools measure up to it.
We sent public records requests to more than 230 schools in Ohio. We asked for records verifying which makes and models of helmets they are using.
What we found is that many of of the schools in our area are using four- and five-star helmets.
But we also found a significant number are using one- and two-star helmets.
And that's concerning to Duma.
"I think the excuse you are going to get is cost, and I get that question a lot. We can't afford to do this. My simple answer is 'If you can't afford to have better equipment, you probably can't afford to be playing the sport,' " said Duma.
All Ohio high school football players must wear helmets that are NOCSAE approved.
NOCSAE is the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.
And all the helmets tested are those approved by NOCSAE.
But the folks at Virginia Tech say these helmets are not created equal, and they want coaches, parents and players to be aware of it.
How do we prevent concussions on the football field?
Unfortunately there is no answer to that question right now, and no football helmet that is concussion proof, but what if wearing a certain kind of helmet could reduce the risk of concussion?
One study says it can.
INTERACTIVE: Helmet use by rating
High school football players can get hit hundreds of times a season, but no amount of training or conditioning can toughen up their brains.
"I do remember getting hit in the head," said Brandon Byrd, a Solon football player.
Byrd played quarterback and safety for the Comets. He plans to play for Kenyon College next fall. Byrd's concussion came his junior year after taking a defender's knee to the head.
Byrd recalls, "Instantly, my head started ringing really badly."
Duma and his team rated helmets based on the probability that they may help reduce concussions.
"Of all sports the risk of head injury in football is the greatest, and what we try to do is show you how to bring that risk down," he said.
WKYC wanted to find out what kind of helmets local teams are using. Because athletic equipment is purchased with tax payer dollars, that information is public record.
We asked for invoices to verify what make and model helmets are being used. Within a few weeks, we had our results.
We matched those records against the Virginia Tech rating system. What we found is that many schools use three- to five-star helmets.
We found that 29 schools are using the two-star helmet -- the Schutt Air Advantage. And 14 schools are still using the one-star helmet -- the Riddell VSR4.
"It really surprises me now, given that we're three years after the ratings came out. I get it. There's some lag. Maybe they didn't hear about it the first year, maybe the second year. But by now, three years out, I don't think there's any reason." said Dumas.
Schools using the VSR4 include Ashland, Chalker, Clearview, Cleveland Heights, Elyria, Howland, Huron, LaBrae, McDonald, Newbury, Ravenna, Shaker Heights, Struthers and Western Reserve Academy in Collins.
WKYC reached out to them to see what if any action they may take.
But it's also important to note -- all the helmets tested in this study are certified for use by NOCSAE. That's the National Operating Committee On Standards for Athletic Equipment.
INTERACTIVE: How are helmets reconditioned?
The Ohio High School Athletic Association, which regulates interscholastic sports across the state, requires this NOCSAE certification for football helmets.
"We'll test it to the appropriate standard and tell you if it works." said Duma.
NOCSAE uses a pass-fail system -- and disputes the Virginia Tech Study. They say there's just not enough research on what causes head injuries to really rate helmets.
"We know that there are these other mechanisms that cause these inter-cranial sheer strains that result in jury. Therefore, we're not sure what to do. If you're not sure what to do, you best not make the wrong decision, so you have to progress very slowly." said Dave Halstead.
"I think NOCSAE has done a great job in minimizing skull fractures and very serious injuries. This is a fundamental point that we disagree. NOCSAE will tell you all helmets are the same under their standard, and we say that's not true, that the differences are dramatic. You can pass a NOCSAE standard by a little or a lot, and what we are saying, that the helmets that pass it by a lot are much better and they are dramatically different in acceleration level," said Dumas.
It took about four weeks before Byrd was cleared to get back into the game. Now he's looking forward to his collegiate career -- but still mindful of what can go wrong.
"It's football, so you kind of know what you are getting yourself in to. You need to know. You need to be protected, so you are fine later in life," said Byrd.
Former Cleveland Brown Josh Cribbs knows a thing a two about concussions. He sat down with us to talk openly about the concussions he's suffered during his career, and what he sees as the biggest problem when it comes to football helmets.
In 2012, Cribbs was knocked unconscious during a game against the Baltimore Ravens. "For me, getting hit like that was an eye opener.
My parents didn't want me to play anymore. My wife was in tears. It struck me. I'm like 'Wow. The sport I love could actually take my life.' It has the ability to take my life away," Cribbs said.
We wanted his opinion on our investigation. We showed him the Virginia Tech Wake Forest University Helmet Rating System.
"I'm surprised. Wow! I wore a Riddell helmet all the way up from rec. ball to the NFL. Wow, I should have worn a better helmet. I might have some brain cells left in my head," Cribbs said while looking at the rating system.
The helmet Cribbs referred to is the Riddell VSR4. It received a low 1-star rating and Riddell itself urged players to stop wearing it in 2011.
The company even offers a trade-in program for the VSR4 to move players into newer models. But the VSR4 is still in use on some high school football fields.
Our investigation found 20 area schools still using the VSR4. Cribbs hopes our investigation opens the eyes of athletic directors and parents.
"Personally, looking at the high school level, you want kids protected. You know, with them being under-skilled and how to properly tackle, they need assistance. And the way they can get that assistance is through wearing better helmets," Cribbs explained.
He also said funding can't be an issue because some of the lower rated helmets are actually more expensive than the higher rated ones.
"Going through the sport myself I would want my son protected. Any father, any parent would want their children protected to the max. I would tell them directly, 'Do you care about your athletes? Do you care about the safety of your athletes? If the answer is yes, why are they in 1 and 2 star helmets instead of a 4 star or 5 star?'
I want to see the effort made. I want it not to be about a financial thing. I want it to be a mandatory," Cribbs demanded.
Cribbs told us he now wears a 5-star rated helmet. Given his previous concussions, he believes the one he has chosen gives him the best chance at avoiding a concussion in the future.
However Cribbs is also quick to point out that no helmet can prevent all concussions. The Kent State graduate signed with the Jets in October of last year.
He and his family still have a home in the Cleveland-area.
Virginia Tech and Wake Forest University announced new adult football helmet ratings for 2014. A total of 23 helmet models have been evaluated using the STAR evaluation system.
Higher rated helmets are found, by the study, to provide a reduction in concussion risk compared to helmets with fewer stars.
Five new helmets have been added to the list of those tested by researchers. They all earned the 5-star mark which is the highest rating awarded. New to the list in 2014: Schutt AiR Pro VTD, Schutt Vengeance VTD, Rawlings Tachyon, Xenith Epic, and Xenith X2E.
Later this year, the Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings will be expanded to evaluate hockey helmets using newly developed helmet testing methods.
And in 2015, football helmet rating methods will be changed to include linear and rotational acceleration. Researchers have tested adult-size helmets up to this point, and will be adding youth football helmets for the first time.
Virginia Tech researchers have published a 5-year plan for their helmet evaluations. It can be found here.
You can also access the new 2014 helmet rating guide by clicking here.
Schools are already taking action after a WKYC investigation which looked into concussion risk ratings for football helmets used by schools throughout Northeast Ohio.
We contacted schools that reported using the Schutt Air Advantage and Riddell VSR4, which rated 2 and 1 stars respectively on the Virginia Tech Wake Forest impact test.
We also contacted the 2 schools which have reported using the Adams A2000 Pro Elite.
This helmet rated so poorly on the tests that it is "not recommended" for use on the football field. The Adams A2000 was also the only football helmet to receive "0" stars.
Its manufacturer Adams USA no longer manufactures football helmets after selling off that portion of its business to Schutt Sports in 2011.
Riddell also no longer manufacturers the VSR4, and has established a trade-in program for the helmet. Click HERE for more information.
A number of the schools said they will stop using the lower rated helmets immediately. Others said they will begin phasing them out.
We have included the responses we have received thus far below:
CLEVELAND METROPOLITAN SCHOOL DISTRICT: Several CMSD schools has 2 star helmets. East Tech has some Adams A2000 helmets in its inventory. The Adams A2000 received 0 Stars. "The findings of the study are valuable for CMSD's ongoing efforts to review and provide the safest equipment possible for our athletes. Safety of our athletes is a top priority. Any helmets in our inventory identified as substandard in the study will be replaced by helmets that meet safety standards." - Roseann Canfora, District Communications Officer
CAMPBELL MEMORIAL HIGH SCHOOL:Campbell has 13 Adams A2000 Pro Elite helmets (not recommended for use), 28 Riddell VSR4 helmets ( 1 star), 1 Schutt Air Advantage (2 star):
"Safety is always our number one concern. We appreciate the data you have shared." – Michael Bowen, Campbell City Schools Superintendent
SOLON HIGH SCHOOL:Solon has 1 Schutt Air Advantage (2 Stars)
"Based on our inventory of May 2013, which we submitted to you,we only had one of the lower rated helmets mentioned in our inventory. That helmet will not be in our inventory for the 2014 season. We have been aware of the study for the past few years and have used it when consulting with our sales representatives and Cleveland Clinic personnel who help us fit and maintain the helmets used by our athletes." - Mark T. McGuire, Solon Schools Athletic Director
HOWLAND HIGH SCHOOL:Howland has 1 Riddell VSR4 helmet in its inventory (1 Star)
"Thank you for communicating with us. We are aware of the helmets that we have that are low rated. We just ordered 26 new Xenith helmets to replace the low rated helmets we have, we will not put any of our athletes in those 1 and 2 star rated helmets. They are going to be "trophy helmets". This will put all of our players in 4 and 5 star helmets.." - Ron McCleary, Howland Local Schools Director of Athletics.
GREEN LOCAL SCHOOLS:Riddell VSR4 (1 star) Schutt Air Advantage (2 stars)
"We are aware of the study. None of our students use any of the Schutt Air Advantage at the high school level. Also we have no Riddell VSR4 in use at the high school. We did have 4 in use at the middle school level of the Riddell VSR4 and the comparable youth model and 2 of the Air Advantage at the middle school level. We have taken those out of use and will be using no 1 star or 2 star helmets in our middle school or high school programs. – Bruce Johnson, Green Athletic Director
* WKYC note: We asked schools for helmet inventory for their high school programs. Some districts supplied this information and included middle school inventory as well.
WESTERN RESERVE ACADEMY (COLLINS)Riddell VSR4 (1 star)
"We will be phasing out our Riddell VSR4 helmets at the end of their cycle. Each year, through Riddell we recondition and remove helmets from our inventory that have been rejected by the reconditioning process, been used for a total of 5 seasons, or that were purchased 10 years prior. In our inventory we do not have any Schutt Air Advantage (which is a 2 star rating). We do have 1 Schutt DNA Pro+ (which is a 3 star rating). This Helmet as with our others will be taken out of inventory once it age limits, or 5 years of use limits have been met. This year we are purchasing 14 new Riddell Revolution Speed Helmets. Our purchase order was completed in February of 2014." - Ryan Falknor Western Reserve Academy Athletic Director
GIRARD HIGH SCHOOL: Schutt Air Advantage (2 Star)
"I went back over the inventory and we have 117 helmets counting the Xenith X1 helmets which were purchased this winter. Of those helmets 82 are 4 star helmets and 15 are five star helmets. There are 17 three star helmets and 3 two star helmets (Air Advantage). There are no helmets of the Riddell VSR4 left in our inventory. We have tried to purchase the adult helmets which are of high quality for our entire program. Having 97 helmets out of 117 helmets (83%) of 4 stars or better is a pretty good start. We will be eliminating the 3 air advantage helmets this year and it is very likely we will not use them since we usually dress approximately 100 to 110 players for grades 7 thru 12. Thanks for your concern. The added information is appreciated. I had looked at the Virginia Tech study a few years back and I revisited it today before sending you this email. We will continue to do our best to protect all of our student athletes." - Joseph Cappuzzello Girard Athletic Director
LABRAE HIGH SCHOOL: Riddell VSR4 (1 Star)
"Thank you for the information. I was not aware of the rating system with the helmets. I have 2 helmets that are below a 4 star rating and I will be replacing them immediately." - Todd Rowe LaBrae High School Assistant Principal and Athletic Director
SANDY VALLEY HIGH SCHOOL: 24 Schutt Air Advantage (2 Star)
"I am not aware of this study. The helmets we use at this time have served our purpose well with very few concussions the past number of years. Obviously if we find the helmets we use are no longer safe we would replace them. Maybe it is something to keep in mind as we purchase new ones each year. We could not replace them all it once but maybe gradually if needed." – Michael Keck, Sandy Valley Athletic Director
WEST GEAUGA HIGH SCHOOL: 1 Schutt Air Advantage (2 Star)
"We will look at those helmets and consider replacing them due to their "low" performance rating ." - John Cardiero West Geauga Athletic Director
TIMKEN HIGH SCHOOL: 7 Schutt Air Advantage (2 Star)
"Thank you for your inquiry. The safety of our football players is a priority and we are aware of the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University 2013 Football Helmet Rating System. A very small amount of our helmets are rated a 2, and we have none that are rated a 1. We plan to replace the 2-rated helmets in our inventory with those that are rated higher." – Lisa Reicosky, Executive Communications Canton City School District
MINERVA HIGH SCHOOL: 21 Schutt Air Advantage (2 Star)
"I was not aware of the star rating system from Wake Forest. The study does make you think about what helmets our school should buy. This study reinforces allowing our kids to purchase a 5 star helmet on their own if they chose to do so. Which means if this study has as much bite to it as what is being reported, then shouldn't the company certifying our helmets (Which we pay incredible amounts of money to), up their standards also? This would give each school no choice but to purchase the 4 or 5 star ratings. " – Don Spinell, Minerva Athletic Director
CLEVELAND HEIGHTS UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS : Riddell VSR4 (1 Star)
"Thanks for your follow-up regarding the safety of football helmets. I was not aware of the study from Virginia Tech and their rating system. We certainly will review the study as well as our inventory of helmets and make whatever decision is in the best interest of our kids." - Kristin Hughes, Director of Athletics Cleveland Heights University Heights
Don't mess with Texas when it comes to high school football helmets. In 2012 the Lone Star State became the first requiring schools to make available to football parents records of helmet inventory.
Schools are required to have updated records of the age of helmets, as well as when they were last reconditioned.
Ohio has no such law.
During our two-month investigation we encountered repeated instances in which schools could not produce up-to-date records and did not know what helmets made up their inventory.
Many schools relied on information from the companies that recondition their equipment.
So what can parents do?
We've compiled a list of four questions every parent can ask of their school or coach to learn more about their child's football helmet.
- You want to know the make and model of the helmet to measure it against the Virginia Tech rating system.
- The age of the helmet. No helmet on a football field should be 10 years old or older.
- The reconditioning schedule of the helmets. All schools that responded to our inquiry say they recondition their helmets every year.
- Make sure that the fit of the helmet is correct. A helmet that is too loose or too tight can be a risk.