Behind the process: How local football programs operate in the business of helmets

Sat, 24 August 2019 / Published in Featured Story

August 23, 2019

Eli Lederman-Tulsa World

Each year, the months between December and May become Josh Smith’s busy season.


As one of several sales representatives in Oklahoma for Riddell, one of the nation’s leading helmet companies, Smith spends his winters and springs traversing the state making sales, checking in with contracted football programs and inspecting their existing Riddell equipment.


It’s during this period where nearly every piece of the helmet process — from purchasing to reconditioning to standard maintenance — gets taken care of and set into place for the upcoming season. By the time high school football in Oklahoma begins to heat up in late summer, Smith’s work is largely done.


“Once we hit July and August, we can be pretty confident these programs have what they need for the season,” Smith says. “After that, things get easy for us.”


As the culture and costs surrounding football helmets have shifted over the past decade, the business end of the sport's most vital safety protection has remained largely unchanged. Technology has evolved and standards have tightened, but the same mechanisms and processes involved in purchasing and maintaining helmets has stayed the course, with high schools across the nation operating now much like they did around the turn of the century.


When it comes to purchasing football helmets, most high school programs around Oklahoma do things the same way, working directly with sales representatives like Smith from companies such as Schutt, Riddell, Xenith or Vicis to fill their helmet needs. At prices ranging from $200-$1,000 per helmet, schools everywhere are constantly tracking inventories and fluctuating roster sizes while working with the companies to ensure they have a full stock come football season.


Some programs across the Tulsa-area, such as Jenks and Broken Arrow, purchase their helmets in bulk, each buying more than 100 in a single offseason within the last threes years while phasing down older helmets to junior varsity and freshman teams. Other local programs such as Central or Will Rogers, are forced to operate differently. Working with thinner budgets, coaches find themselves limited to purchasing only a few helmets at a time. For those coaches, offseasons are often spent scouring for helmet deals to fill out their inventories for the upcoming season.


The ability to purchase a hefty number of the same exact helmet grants the schools that can do it far-ranging benefits, and in turn presents fresh challenges to those who can only purchase helmets a half-dozen at a time, often from multiple companies.


On top of needing a proper inventory of helmets, programs must also have the correct number of sizes within their count to outfit each player on the roster safely. Some handle that simply by keeping a stock of surplus helmets in each size, allowing them to evolve with varying numbers each year. Others don’t share that luxury and operate on the margins year to year, often needing to purchase an extra helmet or two.


In-game helmet issues impact programs differently as well. For teams where each player is wearing the exact same helmet, for instance a Schutt Vengeance Pro, all the auxiliary helmet hardware is the same, too. In the case of a malfunction during game action, the uniformity makes it simple for equipment staffs to replace parts with extra pieces of equipment on hand.


“That really saves me on the sidelines,” says Broken Arrow head coach David Alexander. “If a chin strap breaks, I know where all the parts are at and what they are. We don’t need to mess with finding out what helmet it is and then figuring out the pieces from there.”


On many sidelines around Tulsa, though, it’s not that simple. On a team where a quarterback might wear a Xenith X2E+ and his lineman sports a Riddell SpeedFlex helmet, the bolts and straps won’t be the same, and challenges emerge in identifying and installing replacement parts. For these programs, where budgets are already tight, helmet repair often becomes a tedious, added expense.


In the offseason, the operation continues. As programs set out to replenish their helmet inventories and have routine maintenance done on the ones they already have, they’ll also have a portion of their collection sent out to be reconditioned and re-certified by their chosen retailer.


Per standards set by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, a helmet must be reconditioned once at least every two years. Local programs in Tulsa have different systems to keep track of which helmets need to go in, but often leave it up to representatives from the helmet companies themselves, like Smith, to evaluate their inventories to determine which helmets require reconditioning most urgently.


Some schools, primarily those outside of the Tulsa Public School system, recondition their helmets even more frequently than NOCSEA mandates require. But many, constrained financially, can only send in their helmets when absolutely necessary.


Football helmets across high schools all over the country have become a business within themselves, requiring more time and money than almost any other aspect of maintaining a safe and sustainable football program. In the Tulsa-area, budgets, needs and other circumstances require each school to approach the business differently, and for some it is a much simpler proposition than others.