Science vs. concussions: Inside football helmets

More than 100 schools responded to a KOIN 6 News request about their football team's helmets

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A Riddell football helmet at the Camas High School football field, 2015 (KOIN)
A Riddell football helmet at the Camas High School football field, 2015 (KOIN)

TIGARD, Ore. (KOIN) -- When the Tigard High Tigers went into the state championship game undefeated last season, they had been competing at a deficit for weeks. The varsity squad had a total of four players who suffered concussions.

"We had one guy (a starting offensive/defensive lineman) we lost for the remainder of the year," Assistant Coach Mark Jolley said. "He had a pretty severe concussion."

Jolley is in charge of the team's equipment and was one of the first to respond to a KOIN 6 News request about the helmets used by Oregon and southwest Washington high schools.

Tigard parents should feel good about the helmets their student athletes are wearing.

Tigard came from behind to beat West Salem and move on to the 6A finals Nov. 28, 2014. (KOIN 6)
Tigard came from behind to beat West Salem and move on to the 6A finals Nov. 28, 2014. (KOIN 6)

"We have three 5-Star and one 4-Star" helmets, Jolley said. Freshman players wear the 4-Star Riddell Revolution. Varsity players wear newer Xenith X2E, Riddell 360 and Riddell Speed helmets, “kind of their next level. Came out a couple years ago.” Each rate 5-stars.

The star rating system was developed by Virginia Tech after first testing car crashes -- 5 stars is the best, 1 star is the worst.

""If we can understand accelerations of the brain in humans, we can understand how to make safer cars, how to make safer helmets for soldiers, we can now understand how to make better helmets for football players," said Virginia Tech professor Stefan Duma.

More than 100 schools in Oregon and southwest Washington responded to a request from KOIN 6 News about their football team's helmets. A total of 59 provided enough information to compare their inventories to the Virginia Tech tests.

The overwhelming majority of schools use helmets rated 4 or 5 stars. But 11 schools (19%) reported having at least one helmet rated only 1 or 2 stars. None of the schools reported having the only helmet model that rated zero stars, the Adams A2000 Pro Elite.

Of the 100 schools in Oregon and southwest Washington contacted by KOIN 6 News, 61 schools responded. This chart shows the number of helmets each school has from different manufacturers and their rating from the Virginia Tech system. (Scroll across for complete data)

"If you have a good 4-star helmet, there's a little improvement to a 5-star, but it's very small," Duma told KOIN 6 News. "The big differences are from the bottom to the top, and that's our main message. If you're in a 1-star, not recommended, or even a 2-star. You really should move into the 5-star category. Those differences are dramatic."

Dr. Michael Koester, who chairs the medical committee for the Oregon School Activities Association, told KOIN 6 News there is not a clinically proven correlation between Virginia Tech's findings and concussion risk.

"You can extrapolate the data and say that helmet X does better than helmet Y in their testing, but we have no solid evidence that the extrapolation carries over to the football field," Dr. Koester said.

A Riddell football helmet concussion sensor is shown at the Camas High School football field, 2015 (KOIN)
A Riddell football helmet concussion sensor is shown at the Camas High School football field, 2015 (KOIN)

Last year, Camas High School became the first in Washington or Oregon to try out new technology that can detect impacts to the head. A thin, 5-point sensor lines the interior of the helmet and sends a signal to a hand-held device that alerts a trainer to any potentially serious blow to the head.

Those helmets - and helmets in general - are expensive. The 5-star helmets range from $199 to $414. The cost sometimes delays schools from upgrading their helmets.

Tigard's Jolley said it's not unusual for parents to buy helmets for their sons, instead of using what the schools provide.

Several smaller schools report they have stopped buying helmets, choosing instead to lease them on a year-by-year basis.  “This program, although maybe a little more expensive in the end, gives us a lot of liability coverage and we don't have to do any cleaning of the helmets at the end of the season,” said Neil Barrett, the Athletic Director at McKenzie High School.

"We just got 90 helmets back from being reconditioned," he said. Helmets can have a lifespan of 10 years if they’re reconditioned every one to two years and recertified to the national standard set by the NOCSAE, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment. This year Tigard had 6 helmets rejected during the reconditioning process.

By the way, Tigard lost to Central Catholic in the Class 6A championship game and finished the season 13-1.

More information on concussions:

Concussion resource: The Center on Brain Injury Research & Training

Concussion Law in Oregon: Max's and Jenna's Laws

Concussion Law in Washington: Zackery Lystedt Law

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