Despite concussions, youth football helmet standards non-existent

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Indiana is tackling the fight to make football safer for kids and high school players.

New research from the National Institute of Medicine and Research Council reveals a high school football player is nearly twice as likely to suffer a brain injury than a college football player. I-Team 8 has uncovered a potential conflict of interest and partnership that may be getting in the way of a setting a standard. I-Team 8 also uncovered the inside game that may have schools budgeting with local children’s brains.

Every hit, every tackle adds to the country’s growing concussion crisis. Kimberly Archie, the mom of a former football player, calls what happens on the field child abuse. She already created safety standards for cheerleading. Now she’s taking on football.

“It’s the win-at-all-costs mentality that says we want to win a game more than we want to take a look at something we have done for decades and do it different,” said Archie.

HELMET PICKS VARY

Center Grove Coach Eric Moore is taking a difference approach by testing a new brand of helmet. About half of his players wear Riddell and the other half wear SG, which is manufactured in Brownsburg.

“My two sons that play football use the SG helmet,” Moore said.

When questioned why, he said for a lot of reasons.

“I think it’s the newest product on the market that meets the best standards in safety,” Moore said.

In addition to being the newest technology, it’s also the lightest. At a little more than 2 pounds, it’s less than half the weight of the Riddell. Moore says team concussions dropped last year, though he didn’t provide specific numbers.

Other districts use only one specific brand. According to an email obtained by I-Team 8, Warren Central emailed a helmet manufacturer writing, “No thanks, we have a partnership with Schutt.” The athletic director didn’t explain the partnership in detail but said it involves switching from Riddell to an exclusive use of Schutt helmets for three years.

“Those little kids, in my opinion, they deserve to have the best they can put on their head so they don’t start off in high school with a concussion.”— Bill Simpson, SG Helmets

NO STANDARDS EXIST

In 40 years, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, or NOCSAE, has changed little about its standards and certification of football helmets. Last year in a closed door meeting NOCSAE acknowledged for 95 percent of kids, youth helmets are too heavy.

Bill Simpson of SG Helmets knew it too. Well known for safety in auto racing, he remembers one to two race car drivers killed a week. He invented the fire suit, gloves, safety harnesses and the helmet that keeps drivers alive.

“Those little kids, in my opinion, they deserve to have the best they can put on their head so they don’t start off in high school with a concussion,” said Simpson, explaining why he is taking racing technology and putting it into a football helmet.

A heavy football helmet can keep the head moving after the player is tackled. It’s known as the bobble head effect. The brain tissue tears. Experts say a lighter helmet reduces the momentum of the entire head and the brain inside as it accelerates into the skull.

Simpson is pushing for NOCSAE to set a youth standard. He’s been manufacturing the football helmet for a few years.

“There is a lot of politics and there is a lot of push back,” said Simpson.

NOCSAE certification carries a severity index, or SI, of 1200 in drop tests simulating football hits. Anything below 1200 passes. So, where do helmets for local football teams rank? NOCSAE refuses to release helmet manufacturers SI scores to the public. However, a graduate student from Purdue University consulted SG and tested two youth helmets. The Riddell 360 scored an SI of 752 and the SG scored 359.

NOCSAE has talked about a youth standard since 1994. It’s been in draft since 2011. I-Team 8 asked NOCSAE Executive Director Mike Oliver why there is a standard for adults but not kids.

“The standard for an adult is based upon the injury risk criteria that’s well developed. The injury risk for youth isn’t clear,” explained Oliver.

The risk is unclear in part because youth football concussions aren’t tracked. But there are youth helmet standards for bicycles and motorsports.

POTENTIAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST

helmetsNOCSAE has helmet manufacturers who sit on the board and the group gets fees from helmet manufacturers. Each NOCSAE sticker on the back of a helmet costs helmet manufacturers 50 cents.

When questioned if it makes NOCSAE truly independent Oliver said, “It absolutely does.”

However, ethics professor David Orentlicher from Indiana University’s law school calls it conflict of interest.

“We know when Consumer Reports is evaluating the safety of automobiles it will not take any money from automobile manufacturers,” Orentlicher said.

Archie, the mom of the former football player, compared the issue to space travel.

“We can fly to the moon but we can’t make a helmet for kids,” she said.

The real battle over helmets, school budgets, and partnerships plays out on youth fields. I-Team 8 was able to confirmed four young football player deaths tied to concussions, according to doctors and families. The families of Derek Sheely, Nathan Stiles, Matt Gfeller and Dylan Steigers have all taken an active role in sharing what happened to their children on the field.

By the time young players reach high school, Massachusetts neurologist Dr. Robert Cantu said they will average 1,500 hits a season. Some suffer a concussion and continue to play.

SURVEY GOES OUT

I-Team 8 surveyed 20 local high schools asking about concussions and helmets. In all six of those who responded, athletic directors decide the helmet for the school. Lawrence Township declined to participate and 13 never responded.

State Senator Jim Merritt sent a letter to the Indiana High School Athletic Association asking them to require immediate action to report the severity of concussions and the brand of helmet worn.

“Let the parents know and let the public know so we can get a handle on what helmet is right, what helmet is wrong,” Merritt said.

He also wants parents to be able to choose their child’s helmet.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Until then, here’s what parents can do.

Look for a certification sticker on helmets.
Look for a certification sticker on helmets.
  1. Ask the school the make and model of the helmet. Research the model.
  2. Inspect the helmet for damage. Does the helmet have cracks?
  3. Look for certification. Most helmets are certified every few years and the date can be found inside the helmet. (An example of the sticker is to the right.)
  4. Check the age of the helmet. NOCSAE says helmets shouldn’t be more than 10 years old.

Archie says new technology should have parents asking more questions.

“Moms have a much bigger voice than what they realize,” said Archie.

No helmet is 100 percent effective in preventing concussions or other injuries.

Some coaches turn to the VA Tech Helmet Rating System which uses a star system. NOCSAE has publicly spoken out about it. VA Tech Professor Steven Duma came up with the system. He says he left the NOCSAE board due to conflict of interest taking issue that their experts were paid consultants for helmet manufacturers.

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