Protecting our Players: Helmet ratings weigh concussion risks

Protecting our Players: Helmet ratings weigh concussion risks

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - According to a 2014 study released by the Journal of Neurosurgery, no other U.S. sport accounts for more concussions than football.

As area high school teams suit up for spring drills ahead of another season, Ernie Drews, an athletic trainer at Goose Creek High School, knows it's a topic that can't be avoided.

"We have that conversation with our athletes and with the parents," he said.

"What we're putting your child in is top of the line, however, it will not stop a concussion."

Professor Stefan Duma, PhD, a leading researcher at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, hasn't found a way to stop concussions, but he is measuring risks.

In 2011, Duma released a 5-star helmet rating system, listing the make and model of new adult football helmets, along with a star-rating signifying concussion risks.

A 5-star helmet signifies the best on the market, with declining numbers signifying a greater concussion risk.

"There wasn't any information out there," Duma said.

"The idea is when you buy these helmets, which ones should you buy."

The Virginia Tech helmet ratings are based on a decade of research. Teams used sensors inside the helmet to measure acceleration during a hit, then later conducted drop tests, at four different impact points, where sensors showed players were hit most often.

Researchers tested more than 10,000 helmets, 120 times each.

"How well do helmets cushion that impact?"

"The better they cushion it, the lower the acceleration, the better the helmet."

In the same 2014 Journal of Neurosurgery report, researchers followed college football players at eight universities for six years. They found moving players from a 1-star to 4-star helmet lowered their concussion risk by 50 percent.

"We've always said that the biggest differences are between the bottom and the top," Duma said.

"If you look at a 1-star, and a four and five, those differences are dramatic."

In a Live 5 News investigation, we contacted every public school in Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester and Georgetown Counties, gathering the make and model of varsity football helmets, comparing them to the Virginia Tech rating system.

To see the the full list, click here:

No school in the Tri-County area reported having a 1-star helmet, the Ridell VSR4, or the helmet listed as "Not Recommended," the Adams A2000 Pro Elite.

Several schools also use helmets that do not appear on the list.

Duma says the ratings only include helmets sold as new in 2011, when the ratings were first released.  Those not on the list now are at least five or more years old.

"We've always said that the biggest differences are between the bottom and the top, so if you look at a 1-star, and a four and a five, those differences are dramatic."

Most varsity football helmets have a 10-year shelf life,  and undergo processes called reconditioning and recertification annually, if not every other year.

Reconditioning, refers to the cleaning, sanitizing and repair of used helmets to restore to them to original performance standards, while recertification includes reconditioning, but also testing and proper labeling of athletic equipment to comply with standards set by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, NOCSAE.

During the process, helmets are stripped of the facemask, and any other hardware, while inspectors look and test for cracks and defects.

The recertification process also includes a drop test, similar to what researchers use at Virginia Tech.

Helmets that comply with NOCSAE standards, are labeled and redistributed back to each school, while all others are rejected.

In Charleston County, Athletic Director Dave Spurlock says it's best practice to recondition equipment annually, but coaches are not required to do so.  Each school in the district is responsible for the cost of purchasing helmets and reconditioning.

In Berkeley County, school district officials cover the costs of reconditioning helmets, and undergo the process annually.

A request seeking information on reconditioning requirements among Dorchester County schools was not immediately returned.

Even in the best helmet, with regular maintenance, those closest to the game maintain there will always be concussion risks.

"There's a misconception out there that there's a concussion safe helmet," said athletic trainer Ernie Drews.

"There is no such animal on the market."

See the helmet ratings here:

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