How are H.S. football helmets tracked & managed? Investigation reveals lack of uniformity

FOX 17 Nashville
November 16, 2021

As the high school football season draws to a close, thousands of schools will be examining their inventory of helmets used to protect student athletes. With head injuries and concussions continuing to raise concerns for young football players, Spotlight on America conducted an exclusive nationwide survey, asking how schools track, maintain, and refurbish the used helmets they’ll put back into play. What we found was a patchwork of different practices, a system governed by voluntary standards and little enforcement power to ensure the recommendations are followed.

Everyone in America can tell you about Friday Night Lights. It’s a tradition that brings out high school football fans in droves, with crowds packing the stands as cheerleaders ramp up the excitement. For hundreds of small towns across the U.S., it’s the most anticipated event of the week, and can be extremely competitive.

But for young players, it’s not all fun and games. As Spotlight on America reported earlier this year, one young man suffered an estimated seven concussions during a youth football game, which left him with permanent neurological damage. According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, in 2019 two high school football athletes and one middle school athlete died from direct traumatic brain injuries.

Although no helmet can provide perfect protection against a concussion or brain injury, monster hits to the head have put a national spotlight on helmet safety for years.

It’s something closely watched by Jennifer Gannon, a sports medicine coordinator, and trainer with the National Center for Sports Safety, a non-profit organization that’s part of the ASPIRE Sports Institute. The NCSS has a specific focus on youth football.

“I think parents think they have a helmet, it’s a good helmet. But they don’t think about the fact that every time it gets hit, the helmet takes a beating too,” Jennifer Gannon with the National Center for Sports Safety told Spotlight on America. “So over time, you need to make sure these helmets are up to standard.”

But making sure standards are followed isn’t easy. Right now, there’s no national law governing football helmet safety. Instead, there are voluntary standards and recommendations from a network of organizations. Those recommendations are meant to ensure used headgear continues to be safe for play year after year.

For example, the CDC’s guidelines state that helmets should be tossed after a decade. NAERA, the National Athletic Equipment Reconditioners Association, recommends helmets be reconditioned and recertified every year, thoroughly checked for damage, repaired, and tested.

But we wanted to know how well high schools are doing when it comes to tracking and maintaining this crucial equipment. We filed public records requests coast to coast, with the help of our affiliate stations. Ultimately, we heard back from about 80 public schools and districts spanning 17 states.

Among our findings:

• A patchwork exists when it comes to helmet management
• Districts in Georgia and Texas told us they don’t keep complete records about their helmets
• One school official told us he’s now directing schools to start tracking helmet data because of our questions
• There was wide variation when it comes to who’s in charge of ensuring helmet safety and maintenance – from coaches, to Athletic Directors, even the manufacturers themselves checking to make sure reconditioning occurs
• The only state we found to have a law regarding football helmets is Texas, where part of the Education Code prohibits schools from using helmets more than 16 years old, and requires school districts to recondition all football helmets that are older than 10 years at least once every two years
• Our investigation did find encouraging news, discovering the vast majority of schools we surveyed sent in helmets for refurbishment every year as recommended. But there are outliers. Districts in Oregon, Texas and Virginia told us they refurbish every other year, a timeframe many consider the minimum standard. One Utah School district admitted they may push the process as far as every third year.

But the most troubling thing we discovered were a small number of helmets as old as 11, 14, even 17 years, being sent in for refurbishment.

We took all of these findings to Gannon and the NCSS. She told us she’s not surprised that a patchwork exists, even with something as crucial as a helmet. “If you make something voluntary, it’s in good spirits, but it’s not what’s going to be happening,” she said.

Gannon told us she believes priorities need to be realigned, saying schools often put funding and attention on the look of their uniforms, instead of key safety equipment like helmets.

“Nobody wants to be at a Friday night football game with all their friends and family cheering on your home team, and then tragedy strikes when something goes wrong and it’s because of something like a 15-year old helmet,” Jennifer Gannon with the National Center for Sports Safety told us. “It’s something that could have been so solvable and so preventable.”

Gannon’s organization works to fill in the blanks by educating players, parents, and coaches to be mindful of important sports safety information, including being empowered to check on the date and condition of their helmets.

It’s a sentiment echoed by leading helmet safety expert Stefan Duma. He founded the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, a nationally renowned lab that has been independently testing new helmets for a decade and rating them. The facility and staff examine the impact from all angles and score new helmets using a five-star system.

When it comes to tracking helmets, Duma told us he’d be “very concerned” if a school district can’t provide basic information about their inventory. And he explained that helmet technology has advanced dramatically in the last 10 years, meaning that schools shouldn’t be holding on to old helmets.

“The technology that existed 10 or 15 years ago, it’s extremely outdated so we would not recommend that,” said Stefan Duma of the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab. “If you’ve got something that’s 10 or 15 years old, you shouldn’t be playing with that.”

Spotlight on America got an inside look at how the lab works, including the specialized equipment that can show the impact on a helmet from every angle, and record specific data about its performance.

It’s that data, Duma told us, that helps parents be informed about the helmets their kids are playing in. “We tell parents, we tell players, be involved. Look at your helmet. How old is it? What is the type?” Duma said. “Look it up, make sure it’s the best protection you can have.”

For now, that protection when it comes to used high school helmets, is voluntary. So do our school districts need more oversight?

In Part #2 of our Spotlight on America investigation, we share our findings with a key member of Congress, the founder of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force. And we sit down with leaders in the helmet reconditioning industry to talk about the work that’s done to best protect kids.

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