It’s a hallmark of autumn in America: high school football, played under Friday-night lights on crisp fall evenings, the smack of shoulder pads mingling with the cadences of cheerleaders, and the roar of proud parents and fans.
It’s also the center of a renewed focus on safety as concerns grow over sports-related injuries. What began with heartbreaking stories of one-time NFL heroes left debilitated by too-many blows to the head, led to increasing emphasis on concussion prevention. That includes specific awareness over when concussions happen, so that players can be taken out of the game, along with renewed emphasis on proper tackling techniques, and equipment.
“I got a headache that hasn’t gone away yet,” says Sean Radcliff, now a coach at Rolling Meadows High School. “It’s been ten years and it’s been here every second of every day.”
Radcliff went down with a concussion in his first outing as quarterback when he was a freshman in high school. Today, he still loves the game. But he tells his players, he’s living proof that they should play smart.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’re going to be fine,” he says. “But if you’re playing with a concussion, and that one time you have a mistake and hit your head again, it could be disasterous.”
Because of that, three years ago, Virginia Tech University’s School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences began testing the most popular brands of helmets, giving those with the best protection five stars, down to zero stars for one model, the Adams A2000.
“When you look at some of the helmets, the differences were dramatic,” says Virginia Tech’s Dr. Stefan Duma. “If you move from a one star helmet to a five star helmet, the risk of concussion is cut by over 50 percent.”
With that in mind, NBC5 Investigates asked for the helmet inventories of over 300 public and private high schools from throughout Chicago and the suburbs. That survey revealed over a dozen schools using lower-rated helmets, which were considered either “marginal” or “not recommended” in the Virginia Tech study.
Eight schools were using a 2 star helmet, the Schutt Air Advantage. Two other schools had the one star Riddell VSR4 in their inventories. Four more were still using the Adams A2000, the helmet which received zero stars in the Virginia Tech study.
Chicago’s Farragut Career Academy had nine VSR4’s, and 15 Adams A2000’s. In the NBC5 survey, many Chicago Public Schools gave incomplete information, however, some of them merely listing brand names such as Adams or Riddell, without revealing a model.
Some schools which once used lower rated helmets have dropped them, as technology and safety improved. One of those is Sandburg High School in Orland Park, which no longer uses the VSR4.
“With all of the reports coming out about concussion, we want to get the best equipment that we possibly can,” said athletic director Mark Krusz, who said concussion prevention is a primary focus for his school’s players.
“A lot of that is going over technique, technique, technique,” he said. “Making sure that they know how to tackle with proper form, to avoid injury.”
Experts say that especially with high school students, that’s critical.
“We can’t look to one thing, one piece of equipment, one notion, to say that’s going to prevent your kids from being injured,” says Dr. Elizabeth Pieroth, a neuropsychologist and concussion expert with NorthShore University Health System. “We’re seeing a lot of products making a lot of claims on how to reduce, prevent, or cure concussions that are just not supported by science.”
Indeed, while Pieroth says she would shy away from the zero and one star helmets, she believes fit is a much more important factor.
“The research has been really very consistent that the brand makes very little difference,” she says. “If you have a four star helmet, and it fits better than a five star helmet, that helmet is better for your child.”
Chicago-based Riddell noted that the VSR4 was considered the most advanced helmet in the marketplace when it was introduced.
“The game has evolved significantly,” the company said in a statement, “making room for major advancements in helmet technology.”
Indeed, the company notes that while it discontinued the VSR4 three years ago, their Revolution Speed helmet was the first to receive a five star rating from Virginia Tech. Two other Riddell helmets, the 360 and Speedflex also received five stars.
Another helmet maker, Schutt, said it has issues with the Virginia Tech rating system.
“We’re concerned about the false sense of security that’s being generated, as parents, coaches, players, administrators, and media place an unhealthy and unwarranted amount of focus on a single data point in the evaluation of helmets,” said Glenn Beckman, the company’s director of marketing. “We understand the desire to seek out easy answers, but the truth is there is no easy answer for this complex biological problem.”
Beckman notes that while its Air Advantage model (2 stars) was also discontinued three years ago, “there are still many Air Advantages in the marketplace. If those helmets have been reconditioned properly, there is no reason to believe they perform any less capably than they did when they were introduced nearly 15 years ago.”
Two Schutt helmets, the Air XP Pro VTD and the Vengeance VTD both rate 5 stars in the Virginia Tech tests. The Schutt ION 4D and Vengeance DCT received 4 stars.
Back on the field, Radcliff said it’s important to note that he firmly believes football can be played safely. Equipment is important, he says, but concussion awareness is a prime focus. And he believes the game has evolved light years in that regard, even in the ten years since he was injured.
“If we see anyone who may have had his bell rung, may have any doubts that he might have a concussion, he’s getting out and he’s going to be checked by a trainer, and they’re going to run tests before he can come back and play,” he says. “If we can come up with a solution that works for everyone, I think we can make the game safer, and better.”