There are only a few weeks until high school football is in full swing across the area, making it the perfect time to take a closer look at the kind of helmets local football players are wearing on the field.
But all helmets are not equal according to a study published by scientists at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. They developed a testing system to rank the football helmets already available in stores—the very helmets stamped with stickers certifying they meet national safety standards.
Virginia Tech-Wake Forest STAR System:
The rating system, STAR, stands for Summation of Tests for Analysis of Risk, is in its fourth year of publication but research started in 2003 with studying the acceleration and direction of over one-million head impacts on the football field.
The “best available” helmets are given five stars, “very good” helmets four stars, “good” helmets three stars, “adequate” helmets two stars, “marginal” helmets receive one star and some helmets were simply “not recommended” for use.
Dr. Stefan Duma, director of the rating project and head of the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and sciences said the ratings are supposed to clear things up for the consumer.
“If you at moving from a one star helmet to the better helmets, the four and five star helmets, we’ve published a study that says that difference reduces your chance of concussion by 50-percent,” Duma told NewsCenter 16.
A total of 23 adult football helmet models were evaluated using the STAR system in 2014.
According to Duma, the difference between a one-star and a four or five-star helmet is that a five-star “reduces your chance of concussion by 50-percent.”
When asked about a concussion-proof helmet, Duma said there are no guarantees: “There’s nothing that eliminates everything. There’s no drug, there’s no pill, there’s no treatment in anything that is 100-percent effective.”
Instead, the STAR system is about probabilities. Duma compared a five-star helmet to an expensive car with excellent crash test ratings: “people die in five star cars, but five-star cars are much safer and they reduce your risk overall.”
NewsCenter 16 requested helmet information, including the make, model and reconditioning reports from eight high schools in Indiana.
Athletic departments at School City Mishawaka, South Bend Schools, Elkhart Community Schools and Concord already follow football helmet safety standards when it comes to reconditioning, according to a review of helmet inventory records.
When compared to the standards of the STAR rating system, the eight high schools used either non-tested or three-star and above helmets.
Caution Against the Ratings System
But not everyone agrees with Virginia Tech’s STAR system, including the group charged with establishing helmet safety standards nationwide: The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE).
“This is a complex subject,” said David Halstead, Technical Director of the Southern Impact Research Center, one of the testing and research labs for NOCSAE.
A concussion-proof helmet, said Halstead, is the “Holy Grail,” but there are a lot of people trying to “sell hope.” Hope that a five-star, top-of-the-line helmet will protect against all head injuries.
“It’s difficult to say injuries are climbing in spite of better products,” Halstead explained, “but one thing you can say is injuries are not declining in spite of better products.”
NOCSAE released a statement in response to the STAR Rating System cautioning parents that relying on one rating system can lead to a false sense of security about helmets.
NewsCenter 16 spoke with Mike Oliver, executive director of NOCSAE, who said it’s not the job of a standards organization to do qualitative assessments in a world where helmet safety standards are done on a pass/fail basis.
“You either meet it or you don’t,” said Oliver.
The NOCSAE standard is something every helmet manufacturer must meet in order to sell helmets usable in play. Companies like Riddell and Schutt are required to test a statistically significant number of each models before putting a certifying sticker on the back of the helmet.
Oliver said regardless of STAR rating, a helmet that meets the NOCSAE standard and has been reconditioned to meet the NOCSAE standard is safe to use.
“The variables that are involved in whether or not a player gets a concussion, most of them have nothing to do with the helmet, most are independent of the helmet,” said Oliver.
Virginia Tech includes on its website for the STAR Rating System that it is a “theoretical calculation that is based on a probabilistic analysis of impact exposure and head injury”—a calculation NOCSAE said is limited in its scope.
According to a study presented to the American Academy of Neurology in February 2014, many football helmets aren’t designed to protect players from concussions caused by side-impacts. Side-impacts often cause rotational accelerations of the brain (which is something no laboratory test currently looks at).
Helmets are designed to protect against blunt force traumas and skull fracturing, and in that regard they are immensely successful. However, any impact to the head or other parts of the body can cause the brain to jostle around, resulting in a concussion, regardless of the brand and model of the helmet being worn.
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Research Council (NRC) published a report, funded in part by the NFL Foundation, studying the signs and symptoms of concussions. It details that testing concussion reduction need to factor in two types of accelerations: linear and rotational.
Helmets that do a good job reducing linear accelerations work well minimizing skull fractures and other direct head injuries, however, according to the IOM: “reductions of linear accelerations alone do not necessarily translate into a reduced concussion risk in most impact conditions.”
Virginia Tech’s rating system is grounded in linear impact tests, and for that reason, NOCSAE said its results are incomplete.
Continuing to Improve Testing Standards
On June 20, 214, NOCSAE approved a revised football helmet standard that will require helmets to be tested for additional concussion-causing forces
According to a press release from NOCSAE: “recent NOCSAE-funded research identified brain tissue response from a concussive event and the development of a new method to test helmets, which replications some of the rotational forces involved in a concussion.”
Revising the testing for the national standard will go into effect June 2016 for manufacturers.