News 2 Investigates: How safe are football helmets at Lowcountry schools?

News 2 Investigates: How safe are football helmets at Lowcountry schools? (Image 1)
News 2 Investigates: How safe are football helmets at Lowcountry schools? (Image 1)

When it comes to protecting football players from potential head injuries, information is power. College and NFL teams these days use as much research as possible when deciding which helmets their players will wear.

Among the first mentioned by many, is the Virginia Tech Rating System. It is considered the “gold standard” by many equipment managers, including those at the University of South Carolina, and The Citadel. However, until we started asking questions, some high schools in our area used helmets that the Virginia Tech study says, put kids at greater risk for concussions.

Dr. Stefan Duma runs the Biomedical Engineering Department at Virginia Tech, it is the largest department of its kind in the world. For the third straight year his team tested every adult football helmet on the market 120 times.

“[We test them] front, back, side, top, all different directions, and we do it over a range of energy levels”, said Duma. “All of those tests map what the player sees on the field. So we take the field data, we map it to the lab, and we provide the consumer with an idea of which helmet performs better than others.”

The VT helmet ratings rank the helmets from 1 stars(not recommended) to 5 stars (best available).

“There’s a huge difference between the best helmet and the worst helmet. If you look at the best helmet, it can cut the acceleration in half compared to the worst helmet. This makes a dramatic difference”, said Duma.

That difference is evident in a separate study also conducted by Virginia Tech, and published in the Journal of Neurosurgery in January 2014. It showed, moving from a one-star helmet, to a four-star helmet, cuts the concussion risk by 50 percent.

The only one-star helmet still in use today, is the Riddell VSR-4. Riddell says, it stopped manufacturing that helmet when the first VT ratings came out in 2011, because of its performance in the study. Riddell’s president even urged players to stop using it.

Related Content : Find out which helmets your school uses

“It is our hope that based upon this and other independent research, that players and teams at all levels will continue to migrate to the Revolution family of helmets,” Riddell Sports president Dan Arment said in a statement published in numerous articles.

A company spokeswoman reiterated that stance when contacted by News 2 for this story.

Riddell has programs in place to encourage those playing football to transition to new helmets that incorporate more advanced technology”, Erin Griffin, Senior Communications Manager at Riddell wrote in an email.

Read Riddell’s full statement

Since taxpayer money pays for the helmets worn by high school students, we used the Freedom of Information Act to request the helmet inventories from every high school in the Tri-County area.

Dorchester District II schools are all using 3-star helmets and better. All DD2 schools also have some 5-star helmets in use.

With the preliminary information provided by the Charleston County School District, every school issued 3-star helmets or higher. We are still waiting on model clarification from a handful of CCSD schools.

In Berkeley County, the original response to our request in late June, showed two schools had the VSR-4 in their inventories. Cane Bay reported 74, and Berkeley listed 41. At that time, the district refused to allow anyone at the schools to talk with News 2 about the helmets. They even had our crew escorted out of football practice at Cane Bay when our crew mentioned the helmets.

The district’s spokeswoman sent a statement in late July saying:

“In regards to the Riddell VSR4 helmets at Cane Bay High, I know these helmets are currently being used by the B-Team. Furthermore…BCSD schools maintain football helmets in compliance with standards outlined by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE)”

Just hours before this report was set to air on News 2, the districts Director of Athletics called to say the VSR-4 helmets issued to players at Cane Bay have been pulled, and replaced with the 5-star Riddell Revolution Speed.

“We had them in time for the B-team guys to wear for the jamboree over the weekend”, said Charlie Davis.

Davis said he visited Berkeley on Monday after we told him the Stags also had the VSR-4 in use.

“Those are also going to be replaced”, Davis told News 2. “I contacted our rep at Riddell and we are going to try to have them overnighted so those are no longer in use”.

The VSR-4 is still allowed to be used at the high school level because it is certified by NOCSAE, which governs high school athletics. Officials at the South Carolina High School League tell me they stand by that NOCSAE standard as well.

According to the organization’s website, to meet the NOCSAE standard, helmets are graded pass or fail, and are tested by the manufacturer. Starting in January, NOCSAE will require third party testing of helmets.

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