How would you rate your child's football helmet?
SPOKANE, Wash. -- KREM 2 News is tracking how safe your kids are when they play high school football. Two on Your Side has been conducting a four-month investigation into the type of helmets teens are wearing at schools across the area.
KREM 2 filed public records requests at more than a hundred school districts across Eastern Washington and North Idaho to see what kind of helmets teens are wearing. Some schools are using the best of the best, while others are using equipment that could put kids at risk.
Gonzaga Prep head football coach David McKenna knows helmets have the critical responsibility of cushioning the impact that comes with every football game.
“It's not natural to run into something as hard as you can, as fast as you can,” said McKenna.
Two local students have had scary injuries while playing football. Valley Christian's Andrew Swank lost consciousness after a big hit on the field in 2009. He died four days later at the hospital, and the school eventually got rid of its entire football program. Priest River's Bobby Clark suffered a permanent brain injury in 2011. His family is now suing helmet manufacturer Riddell.
Not all helmets are created equal. That is why more and more schools and coaches are turning to Virginia Tech for guidance.
Since 2011, the university has been using a five-star system to grade football helmets. It gauges how well each model minimizes acceleration of the brain on impact, ultimately deciding how well it may protect a child from traumatic head injury.
“We take a helmet, test each one 120 times at different heights, different directions, and sum all of that information together to one star value,” said Dr. Stefan Duma at Virginia Tech’s School of Biomedical Engineering & Sciences. “It gives you an indication of what helmet lowers acceleration and lowers risk.”
Documents from more than 100 local school districts show 49 of them use five-star football helmets. Those districts include Spokane, Mead, East Valley, Lind-Ritzville, Sprague-Lamont, Potlatch, and Soap Lake.
Almost 30 districts use equipment in the one and two-star range including Clarkston, Medical Lake, and Pullman. At least two districts, Spokane and Wahluke, offer a non-ranked helmet explicitly labeled as "not recommended" by Virginia Tech. It is the Adams A200 Pro Elite.
“That helmet is so bad, it's so underperforming, we didn't even give it a star,” said Duma. “We don't think anybody should ever wear that helmet and play football, especially not at the high school level, where you're going to have the high hits and the high acceleration. That's just unacceptable.”
KREM 2 News also found 29 area districts use the highly controversial Schutt Air Advantage, a two-star helmet. High school senior, Timothy Robinson, was wearing the same one when he suffered a life-changing brain injury on the football field in Alabama.
Timothy was one of six other kids who wore the same model and sustained serious injury.
He successfully sued the helmet manufacturer three years ago but for Timothy, life will never be the same.
“For him, his life was just gone. In a few seconds, his whole life had changed,” said Timothy’s mother Evelyn McGhee.
McGhee said a ratings system like Virginia Tech's is something all parents should know and understand.
“I would say, do your research. Find out what type of helmet it is. What brand it is. How well it's been tested. If it's the worst of the worst,” said McGhee.
KREM 2 asked many of the districts why the Schutt Air Advantage or other low-rated helmets were used.
Kootenai has 17 in its inventory, but the athletic director said they are all "on the tail end of their life."
When told about the lawsuit against Schutt, he said, “All of the air advantages would now be phased out and replaced with a different model."
East Valley officials also said its lower-ranked helmets "will be rotated out as we buy newer and better ones."
Public records show that is the case at many area schools using that model.
Most of these districts use a combination of helmets. In addition to the Air Advantage or the A2000, schools frequently offer four and five-star helmets as well.
Experts said that is exactly what districts should be doing, because not all helmets fit equally.
RATING CHART: Football helmet safety
“If I go to a high school and they have all brand ‘A’ helmets, I know there are some players that aren't fit right,” said Dave Halstead with the Southern Impact Research Center.
Halstead directs the Southern Impact Research Center. He said he is fundamentally opposed to Virginia Tech's five-star rating system.
“We wouldn't do a four or five-star rating. We'd say, if you can be below this level, the risk is acceptably low. If you're above this level, the risk of injury is acceptably high. We think that's much better than a rating system,” said Halstead.
His department is in charge of another helmet standard called NOCSAE - the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.
He believes all helmets on the market are equal. Either they protect you, or they do not.
“Yes, if the helmet meets the NOCSAE standard, the chances of you having a linearly-induced, life-threatening event on the football field, or the baseball field, or the lacrosse field, are not zero, but they're almost zero” Halstead said.
Many schools in the Inland Northwest are paying attention to the Virginia Tech ratings.
The athletic director at Gonzaga Prep said it is all the convincing he needed to make sure their students wear helmets only helmets rated 4 or 5 stars.
“The star rating from Virginia Tech gives us just another piece of the puzzle to put our kids in the safest position,” said Paul Manfred, Gonzaga Prep’s Vice Principal of Athletics.
Industry standard recommends helmets are re-conditioned every other year. Many local schools, including G-Prep, have made the commitment to do it every year.
“It's gone through testing at the national level. And with the violence of the game, we want to make sure we have the best helmet that's been tested,” said McKenna.
Virginia Tech’s ratings also show the priciest gear is not always the best.
“I look at the ratings more than they look at the ratings. They look at the cost,” said Duma. “And they think the more expensive, then the better it must be. That’s not the case. Some of the more expensive helmets are lighter, and they're not testing as well.”
Schools know helmets cannot be the end-all, be-all for protection. Coaches across the Inland Northwest are also making changes in how the game is played.
“We try to eliminate the head as much as we can, for any contact,” said McKenna. “The NFL started that and it's trickling down, which is a great thing.”
KREM 2 News also found many local districts are not familiar with the Virginia Tech ratings system at all. When we contacted them, spokespeople said they were definitely interested in learning more.
In the future, they said it would certainly influence their decisions on future helmet purchases.