KOMO News Seattle
November 18, 2021
When high school football players take the field, they may be playing in a helmet that’s taken hits year after year. Ensuring those used helmets are game ready falls to a network of companies nationwide, tasked with reconditioning this crucial piece of headgear. Reconditioners refurbish more than a million helmets annually, with experts telling Spotlight on America most schools comply with voluntary standards that govern how often helmets should be sent in and when they should toss equipment from their inventory. But our ongoing investigation into helmet maintenance found there’s no official system to handle accountability for those who don’t follow the rules.
Spotlight on America got a look inside one of only 15 certified helmet reconditioning facilities in the U.S., handling a critical job when it comes to protecting high school football players. Capitol Varsity Sports in Oxford, Ohio, is tasked with refurbishing helmets, making sure they can safely return to play. From November to July employees at this facility handle as many as 300 helmets a day, inspecting them for damage and taking them through a two-week reconditioning process. Bob Fawley has owned the company since 1997.
“The biggest thing that happens to a football helmet in all of our plants is the number of eyes that pick each one of these up at each station and see it and look at it,” said Capitol Varsity Sports owner Bob Fawley. “It’s been scrutinized a dozen times before it gets out of the plant.”
Fawley took our team on a tour of his facility, walking us through the plant where helmets arrive from high schools across the Midwest, bagged up and ready for reconditioning. During the process, they are examined for cracks, their hardware is removed and the inside padding is pulled out and sanitized. Any damaged pieces or padding are replaced by employees working in various stations along the assembly line.
Nearly 1.4 million helmets were reconditioned in 2021 across the country. That’s according to statistics obtained from the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, a non-profit that sets performance and test standards for athletic equipment. Each reconditioned helmet receives a sticker featuring the NOCSAE seal, assuring the user that the helmet has been recertified and is ready for play.
Another key group in the process is NAERA, the National Athletic Equipment Reconditioners Association.
Together with NOCSAE and the helmet makers, they set the various standards for helmets, including:
• Helmets will not be refurbished if they are 10 years old or older
• Helmets should be refurbished every year, or at a minimum every other year depending on manufacturer specifications
• Helmet reconditioners should be certified by NOCSAE
• But we found out there are outliers when it comes to compliance with those standards.
Spotlight on America surveyed dozens of schools across the nation to see how they’re tracking and maintaining their helmet inventory. As we revealed in an exclusive investigation earlier this week, there’s a patchwork of different answers about the process depending on where you live. One of the biggest discrepancies concerns how often helmets are reconditioned to return to play.
According to the results of our national survey, we discovered that while most schools surveyed send in helmets for refurbishment every year as recommended, some schools go through the process every other year. One district told us it may push reconditioning to every third year.
And our investigation found some helmets being sent for reconditioning even at 11, 14 and 17 years old, despite universal agreement that a helmet should be discarded after 10 years.
Since the standards set by NOCSAE, NAERA and the helmet makers are voluntary, we sat down with NAERA Executive Director Tony Beam to talk about whether the system is working, given we found evidence of some schools slipping through the cracks.
“Their (the reconditioners) goal is to give the product back that’s a good, safe, clean product,” said Tony Beam, Executive Director of NAERA. “I always want an annually recertified and clean helmet on every athlete that’s playing.”
When we told Beam about helmets being sent in for refurbishment beyond their 10-year shelf life, he told us, “We certainly hope that a helmet that goes back that’s that old wouldn’t have been on somebody in a competition.” He told us that schools may simply be turning in old helmets so that they will be rejected, which can in turn, help them get funding for a new helmet to replace it.
As for the variation we found in reconditioning timelines, Beam responded, “The system is there and I believe it’s working correctly. From our experience in NAERA, pretty much every high school is doing reconditioning, recertification at minimum every other year.”
When we asked about the need for a national mandate that would require schools to follow specific standards, Beam cited the National Federation of State High School Associations, which he said functions as a backstop for the process. He said that organization essentially requires schools to wear NOCSAE certified equipment to play, with potential consequences if NFHS guidelines aren’t followed.
We reached out to the NFHS for comment. Dr. Karissa Niehoff, Executive Director of NFHS, said their organization does not have enforcement power. She told us, “Under the governance structure established for us by our members, we cannot require schools to use our playing rules, nor can we require schools to adhere to NOCSAE/NAERA standards.”
NFHS said it provides extensive guidance to schools that is widely available. But the organization was clear it has not taken enforcement action, and that it has not been tasked by its members with finding or punishing schools for non-compliance with the voluntary standards.
We asked Jennifer Gannon with the National Center for Sports Safety if there should be consequences for schools that fail to follow the rules. She told us a school should not be allowed to host sports if they can’t prove they have safe equipment. Gannon said a major part of that is awareness. “I think nobody’s concerned about these issues until something happens to their kid. You don’t want to wait until the tragedy happens.”
Spotlight on America took this issue to Congressman Don Bacon, R-Neb., Co-chairman of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force. His interest in traumatic brain injuries began following his time in the military, seeing the need to support service members who have dealt with TBIs. But he’s taken new interest in the role helmets play in protecting young brains. We told him about the patchwork of voluntary standards we found in our nationwide investigation, raising questions about the potential need for more formal oversight.
“I think we need a standard, whether it’s federal or state, I’m willing to discuss it and study the pros and cons. I surely think the federal government could fit that role,” Congressman Don Bacon told Spotlight on America. “We’re not going to stop playing the game, but we can certainly raise the bar on helmet standards.”
Which agency might handle that potential oversight is also in question.
For example, The Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates bicycle helmets, but does not regulate football helmets. They shared with us this document that provides guidelines about football helmet safety, including that parents should inspect the helmet for damage, and the helmet should be reconditioned and recertified “periodically”.
The FDA told us it doesn’t consider football helmets medical devices, so it can’t regulate them, instead referring us to the CDC, which references NOCSAE and NAERA in its guidelines. However, the FDA did share that they recently authorized marketing of the Q-Collar, a device intended to be worn around the heck of athletes to protect the brain from head impacts.
But with no timeline or framework for enforceable standards, the process remains in the hands of helmet reconditioners like Bob Fawley. The industry veteran who also sits on the NOCSAE board, stands behind the process wholeheartedly, along with NAERA itself.
“I think parents should feel very confident in this process. This has evolved over 50 years. We didn’t go out last week and start this,” Fawley told us. “No other sport has done anything near what football has done to try and make these things safe.”
For its part, NAERA’s Executive Director Tony Beam told us the lack of government involvement so far is an indication that the process works well and doesn’t require additional oversight.
Meantime, experts we spoke to told us that one of the best ways to ensure helmet safety is for parents to get involved in the process. As Stefan Duma, leader of the VA Tech Helmet Lab told us, “We tell parents, we tell players, be involved. Look at your helmet. How old is it? What is the type? Look it up. Make sure it’s the best protection you can have.”