College programs take proactive approach to helmet safety

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

Oklahoma receiver Ceedee Lamb takes a hit during the Bedlam game earlier this season at Boone Picken Stadium. Lamb took a hard hit this season, which may have led to his absence from the Baylor game. Helmet technology is improving at the college level, but the equipment is still expensive.

It’s the most important job of a college football equipment manager, and one Purdue associate director of equipment Kyle Gergely takes seriously.

Each week, Gergely and his staff goes through the 120 or more helmets worn by players during practices and games, checking for cracks, damaged chin straps or other irregularities.

“The heavy hitters, the guys that are guys that are really hitting, we want to make sure we’re really looking at it,” Gergely said. “Because if you quit paying attention to it, facemasks start to spread over time through the hits and so that pulls the helmet away from the face, thus it’s changing the fit of the helmet.”

As education has evolved about head injuries in football over the last decade, college football programs are taking a proactive approach to ensure the helmets that players wear meet proper safety standards.

Gergely said that all of Purdue’s helmets are manufactured by Riddell, with 80 percent of the helmets SpeedFlex models and the other 20 percent SpeedIcon. The SpeedFlex models hold a 4.5-star safety rating, while the SpeedIcon’s are at 4 stars.

“We’re big fans of the Riddell helmets,” Gergely said. “We believe that they give us the best chance to give a custom fit and the best fit for our players.”

An average helmet costs from $350-400 and it’s common for a Purdue player to wear three to four different helmets during the course of the year. Purdue alternates between wearing black helmets or gold helmets during games. In its homecoming game, Purdue wore white helmets to commemorate alumnus Neil Armstrong and the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Gergely said he’s had to replace one or two helmets so far this year due to cracks, and typically keeps 20-25 replacement helmets in stock during the course of a season.

“Our Riddell budget is quite large,” Gergely said.

Gergely said there is a two-year window for helmets at Purdue to get re-conditioned, but with regular players on both lines of scrimmage, helmets are often reconditioned on a yearly basis. Reconditioning, which typically costs $30 to $40, is the process of deconstructing, cleaning and inspecting game-worn helmets before reconstructing them to make sure they are safe.

“The guys that play a lot, like your offensive line, your defensive line, that are starters, those will get sent in every year,” Gergely said.

Last year, Indiana University made a $130,000 investment on Riddell helmets fitted with memory foam technology. The memory-foam padding inside the helmet is fitted to each individual player by doing a 3D scan of the player’s head. Previously, players had to constantly adjust their helmets by inflating and deflating air bladder linings.

“I love them,” IU senior offensive lineman Simon Stepaniak said. “Starting out my first year we didn’t have those, just trying to get it fit and every practice you had to re-adjust it, to get the right air in.”

Stepaniak said the helmets make him feel safer.

“There used to be a problem, there’s not enough air going into this drive,” Stepaniak said. “But now, it’s like you don’t have to worry about that. It’s a relief.”

IU football chief medical officer Dr. Andy Hipskind said the foam technology prevents players from adjusting the air pressure inside the helmets to make them less safe.

“It’s the same consistent fit, every time, and there’s no self-manipulation,” Hipskind said. “So you know the players aren’t changing the fit of the helmet for comfort reasons.”

Hipskind said helmets in and of themselves do not prevent concussions, but can mitigate certain factors. For example, Hipksind said the better-fitting helmets provide better sight lines for players, which can result in being more alert and avoiding potential helmet-to-body contact that leads to concussions.

“What helmets do is prevent skull fractures, which ultimately reduces the risk of brain bleeds,” Hispkind said. “They prevent facial fractures, they prevent ocular injuries, jaw injuries, oral injuries, lacerations, so helmets do, they are obviously a necessity and they prevent a lot of injuries.

“But unless you can find something gets inside the head and slows the brain down like an air bag in an auto accident, then helmets simply don’t prevent concussions.”

Hispkind said IU reported a reduction in football concussions the first year that it used the memory-foam technology helmets.

“I believe the helmets do reduce, they reduce all head injuries, all comer head injuries,” Hipskind said. “But to simply carve out concussions and say well these custom helmets reduce concussions over a non-custom helmet, we can’t make that claim scientifically. What we can say is that we had a few less last year, we had a few less when we went to this helmet versus when we didn’t.”

Guardian Caps

At the University of Oklahoma and Division II Southwest Oklahoma State, coaches use “Guardian Caps” in practice which are foam-shelled covers to reduce impact.

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley implemented them last season on a suggestion from OU trainer Scott Anderson. Riley said Anderson indicated there might be advantages to using the foam covers, but Riley admits little is proven that the caps have reduced concussions.

“But it darn sure doesn't hurt,” Riley said. “Just conventional wisdom, something a little bit softer, there's some kind of break in between, we thought it could be positive. I think our concussion numbers would show that it probably has been. It's something that we believe in and we've stuck with.”

Riley said players are now accustomed to the caps.

“I honestly don't think they think about it much,” Riley said. “They get so used to it. The padding's pretty light so they can hardly tell the difference when it's on or off as far as the feeling of it. They're still popping, you know, facemask still collide or this or that. We honestly haven't gotten much feedback either way. Just the new normal for them now.”

Oklahoma did not respond to CNHI’s request to speak with its equipment manager, or answer specific questions about which helmets the Sooners use, how much they cost and how often they're replaced.

But Riley said helmets are rarely recycled within the program.

“We stay up to date,” Riley said. “We rarely recycle helmets. They are getting better and better. We’re certainly not going to compromise our safety in any way.”

As a D-II school, Southwest Oklahoma State faces budgetary concerns in providing the safest helmets for its football players. Located in Weatherford, Okla., about 45 miles from Oklahoma City, SWOSU uses Riddell and Schutt helmets for its 145-man roster. The cost is around $350 per helmet, which isn’t the most expensive on the market, head coach Chet Pobolish said.

The next-best helmet is a Riddell Speedflex, which cost $440 each. Pobolish said he uses 10 of those for more high-impact players. He said 8-10 of his players have been concussed this season and only one of them was wearing a Speedflex. High-end helmets like VICIS and Schutt A-1500 models can cost up to and over $1,500, which is out of SWOSU’s budget, Pobolish said.

Pobolish said most helmet sales representatives promote interior padding and quick-release facemask as important features. The quick-release facemask allows guards to be removed within seconds, as opposed to requiring minutes in case a player’s mouth or nose needs to be access due to loss of breath.

Riley said he understands why helmets can range in cost from $300 to more than a thousand dollars.

“They’re not cheap,” Riley said. “They’re not. And with the amount, you understand it, I do think it’s probably like iPhones or anything else, there’s so much demand. I think at some point, the price point will go down on it. Right now, there is so much research being done and these helmets are getting so advanced that you understand that they aren’t going to be cheap.”

Riley said he’s noticed progress in helmet designs and helmet safety each year when he attends national college football coaching conventions.

“They are making a lot of progress,” Riley said. “It’s exciting about where it is and with all this new research, there’s no telling in 5-10 years how much better these things can be. We need them to evolve at the speed or even faster than the athletes are evolving. They didn’t for a while but they are starting now.

“I get why they aren’t cheap. We want them to continue to improve and hopefully as that goes on and we get more research and more people invested and more different vendors making these – not vendors, but different companies making these, then it’ll become more affordable as well.”

Helmet testing

At Virginia Tech, a football equipment manager unknowingly became the catalyst for the Virginia Tech football helmet ratings system.

In 2007, the football program implemented the use of sensors in helmets after Frank Beamer, the Hokies’ football coach at the time, agreed to use his players as subjects.

The sensors affixed to players’ helmets recorded every hit and impact in real-time. If a player sustained a concussion following a violent hit, lab workers would then pair that information with the data recovered from the sensors.

Dr. Barry Miller, director of outreach for the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, further explained.

“That hit was a 130 G linear acceleration and an XY or whatever rotational impact, and so that’s documented,” Miller said.

The first football helmet ratings were introduced by the lab in 2011.

Today, a number of sports’ governing bodies require that football helmets meet National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment standards. 

“The ways they test these helmets are kind of a baseline,” Miller said. ”For the most part, they say, ‘If you wear this helmet, you’re not going to sustain a skull fracture, in general.’ Skull fractures happen around 300 Gs of linear acceleration, which it’s not hard to build a helmet that can satisfy that.”

The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment was created in 1969. According to the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, 36 players died from football-related injuries, and another 30 were left paralyzed, just one year earlier in 1968.

Between 1968 and 2014, 349 people died from football-related injuries.

Virginia Tech’s Helmet Lab uses a five-star rating system that varies from not recommended (zero stars) to best available (five stars). The lab also uses the same classification system for bicycle, hockey and youth helmets, along with ratings for flag football and soccer padded headgear.

Twenty varsity football helmets have been tested and are listed on the lab’s website. Eighteen of the 20 helmets are rated six stars, one is a four-star and another is three stars. A score for each helmet is also included with the star rating. The lower the score, the better the protection.

“The score represents the average number of concussions you would get wearing that helmet if you’re exposed to the seasonal average of 420 head impacts,” Miller explained. “The top-notch helmets now are 1.0 or even better.”

The Schutt F7 LTD ($975) is the highest-rated tested helmet, as evidenced by its six stars and 0.75 score.

“What that helmet can absorb energy-wise is extremely impressive,” Miller said.

In its early years, Miller said Virginia Tech’s Helmet Lab had accumulated about 62,000 impacts of data. Today, he believes it now has close to one million data points.

“We have a really good idea of what kinds of forces and accelerations – both linear and rotational – are causing these concussions,” Miller said. “So when we rate our helmets… that’s exactly what we’re comparing the football helmet performance to – how well does it reduce those accelerations that are basically going to cause concussions, and we rate the helmets with each other, as well.”

While the data the lab’s been able to accumulate since its inception has been instrumental in furthering the cause of player safety, Miller is eager to learn the long-term effects of the studies, as it will be just as vital as the sensor technology when looking examining sustained hits.

“When we assess our football players and say, ‘Hey. How’s your cognition at this point in time and life? Here’s your concussion or your impact data,’” Miller said. “So it will be kind of interesting when we do that to see if players can recover fully from these sub-concussive hits, or is there built up problems that cognition is likely going to be affected? We don’t know, but that will be kind of interesting to see.”

Miller said there are 20,000 lawsuits against the NCAA related to football players who contend they have cognition- and memory-related issues from playing, and claim they weren’t fully informed of the risks associated with playing the game.

Miller believes close to 10 schools are also using sensors on helmets and collecting data. However, Virginia Tech’s Helmet Lab is the only one to use a rating system.

NOSCAE executive director Michael Oliver said helmet testing has evolved through science and technology to account for rotational accelerations. Oliver said as of next month, helmets will have to pass a rotational acceleration limit to become NOSCAE certified.

“The good news is the helmet companies are in tune with what we’re doing,” Oliver said. “So they’ve been working on helmet design, alterations because they knew this was coming so that they could either re-design an existing helmet or design a new one that can meet all of those demands.”

Oliver said NOSCAE doesn’t require any specific requirements on shapes or materials used to manufacture helmets, provided the helmets pass agency standards. For example, Oliver pointed out a recent unique design by helmet manufacturer VICIS which features an outer shell layered above an inner shell.

“The outer shell of the helmet actually has flex in it,” Oliver said. “It’s not hard in between the outside and the inside. The shell within a shell, they are connected with a series of what almost looks like rubber fingers. So everybody has approached it a different way.”

Setting standards

To set proper standards, Oliver said NOSCAE consults with the top biomechanical, medical and scientific minds in the country, including the Virginia Tech lab and a lab at the University of Tennessee that tests combat helmets. The American College of Sports Medicine and American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine each have two seats on NOSCAE’s board, while the American Academy of Pediatrics Sports Division also has a seat on the board. Oliver said NOSCAE also has a scientific advisory committee, which reports to the board twice a year.

“They advise the board and the standards committee on the latest and greatest in science, what’s advisable, what’s not,” Oliver said. “They make recommendations with regard to research that maybe needs to be done or specific questions that need to be asked.”

The NCAA, Oliver said, has a non-voting seat on the board. Oliver said to date, the NCAA or its member schools have not objected to NOSCAE helmet standards.

“We don’t get pushback, we get feedback and that’s by design,” Oliver said. “They’re there because they want to hear sort of from the horse’s mouth what’s going on, they want to be up to date, they want to be kept in the loop and that’s the best way for them to do that.

“But it benefits us because we get the direct feedback from those governing bodies, this is what’s going on, this is an issue we have coming up or we see this as something potential that we need to address, is that on your radar too, and it’s just a way to make sure that we’re all current and well informed.”

Helmet manufacturers, Oliver said, sometimes scoff at changes in standards. Oliver said there are two manufacturer and two reconditioning seats on NOSCAE’s board

“We get feedback and pushback all of the time, that’s not doable, you are asking too much of us, we can’t get product ready in time and so we address those issues where we think it’s legitimate,” Oliver said.

Oliver said manufacturers sometimes run into problems with their own impact testing equipment and that NOSCAE sometimes convenes technical meetings to take feedback and figure out solutions.

“Where we tend to get feedback that we don’t listen to is somebody is behind the curve, some manufacturer isn’t going to have product ready by that date,” Oliver said. “Well, that’s too bad, if five of the six of you have done it and the sixth person has waited too late to start, that’s not a standards issue.”

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