Eight local school districts use football helmets that could put players at a higher risk for concussion, a monthlong NBC 5 investigation found, and a ninth district has replaced 100 helmets with a safer model as a result of our investigation. The helmets were rated poorly in a recent study at Virginia Tech University that claims that some helmets could lower the chances of concussion.
Records obtained by NBC 5 Investigates show some North Texas schools have older helmets that lack the latest safety features in a sport where head injuries can be devastating.
Three years ago, researchers at Virginia Tech University, started testing football helmets, subjecting them to the impact college football players face in practices and games.
“What we found in 2011 was quite surprising. When you look at some of the helmets the differences were dramatic,” said Dr. Stefan Duma, a concussion expert at Virginia Tech.
They discovered some helmets did a better job of reducing head acceleration in a collision — lowering the chance of a concussion.
Using lab results, they created the first ever helmet rating system.
Helmets that performed the best received 5-stars and the helmets that performed the worse received just 1-star or no rating at all.
“If you move from a 1-star helmet to a 4-star helmet the risk of concussion was cut by over 50 percent,” said Duma.
NBC 5 Investigates filed open records requests with 45 North Texas school districts asking for an inventory of football helmets at more than 350 schools. Records show some Dallas-Fort Worth area high schools still have 1-star rated “marginal” helmets.
Records show Northwest High School in the Northwest Independent School District has 143 Riddell VSR-4 helmets that received the 1-star “marginal” rating. A spokeswoman for the district said 100 players are still wearing those helmets this season.
Northwest ISD said it had planned to phase out the helmets at the end of this year — but after NBC 5 Investigates made the district aware of the Virginia Tech research this week the district decided to expedite its plan to purchase new helmets.
In a statement Northwest ISD said, “The Riddell VSR-4 helmets will be replaced with new helmets within 10 business days.”
Purchasing new helmets will cost $29,375.
In Fort Worth, three high schools still have some VSR4 helmets, which received a 1-star “marginal” rating in the study.
Kevin Greene is the executive director of athletics for the Fort Worth Independent School District. He told NBC 5 Investigates he was not aware of the rating system and had not seen the study.
A different spokesperson for the Fort Worth ISD said only eight players are still wearing the 1-star helmets this season at Diamond-Hill Jarvis, South Hills and Western Hills high schools. Those eight helmets could be replaced with 5-star models for just $200-$300 each.
Greene told NBC 5 he was concerned about the rating but wanted to investigate further.
“Well I'd have to look at the study where they might talk about what causes it to be marginal, but yeah, that would be a concern anytime something comes out at the risk of our kids wearing a helmet where we can put them in something better,” said Greene.
Riddell stopped making the VSR4 helmet in 2011.
The company told NBC 5 Investigates it was "the most advanced helmet in the marketplace for many years" but that "the game has since evolved significantly." The company now has "programs in place to encourage those playing football to transition to new helmets that incorporate more advanced technology."
Virginia Tech researchers believe schools should immediately get rid of those helmets.
“They should stop using those helmets. Again, 2014, going into the fall season, I wouldn't want to be the principal or athletic director who said that's OK,” said Duma.
The Garland Independent School District still has about 50 players wearing the 1-star rated VSR4's this season at North Garland, South Garland and Rowlett High Schools.
But Athletic Director Cliff Odenwald said he's still confident the helmets are safe since they have the helmets reconditioned and re-certified regularly to make sure they perform the way they did when they were first built. If a helmet passes that test, he believes it’s safe regardless of Virginia Tech’s ratings.
In fact he plans to keep using the VSR4 helmets next season.
“The ratings for the Virginia Tech research is good, but what’s more important to us is the conditioning company that looks at our helmets to test them to make sure that they’re safe for our students because we’ll never compromise safety with a student,” said Odenwald.
When asked if out of an abundance of caution they should move to a better-rated helmet, Odenwald said, “I don't think so, because we've done everything we could do.”
Odenwald is not the only one who questions the importance of the Virginia Tech ratings.
The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) is the organization that certifies football helmets. They said replacing 1-star helmets at high schools: "may provide no advantage in protection."
They point out Virginia Tech's research used data gathered from college football while pointing to a University of Wisconsin study that found, “…helmet brand and model are unrelated to the likelihood of a concussion” in high school players.
But many school districts like the Richardson Independent School District have taken Virginia Tech's ratings to heart.
They now only use 5-star rated helmets at their high schools. They also give parents choice.
“If we have a parent who is adamant this is the helmet that I want for my child, and we're not able to provide it, we'll let them get what they want,” said Richardson ISD Athletic Director Bob Dubey.
The helmet makers have also responded to the Virginia Tech study. Today all new helmets sold are 4- or 5-star rated; though even a 5-star helmet will not eliminate the chance of a concussion.
Researchers said the best way to prevent injuries is practicing safer and teaching better tackling techniques.
Nic Hayes, a former high school football player who was a freshman when a bad concussion put an end to his football dreams, is now cheering for more research and hoping schools will listen.
“I got hit pretty much helmet to helmet and I more or less blacked out for a little bit, like, I hit the ground. I knew something was wrong,” said Hayes. “I'm glad somebody is doing the research. It’s definitely necessary that someone is at least doing this."
Hayes was hit so hard he had trouble seeing out of one eye.
“One eye it would be clear like the other eye for an hour or two and it would kind of go out where everything on the left side of my eye would be really blurry and I couldn’t see too much,” said Hayes.
At least eight schools in the DFW area still have some 1-star helmets. At least 12 more have some 2-star helmets. The Lewisville Independent School District just got rid of their 1-star rated helmets last week and replaced them with new 4-star models.
To see our NBC 5 Investigates Helmet Tracker from our smartphone app, click here.