By DANIEL GALLEN
Capital News Service
COLLEGE PARK — While football helmet companies strive to make safer helmets in the wake of new information about concussion risks, some in the high school athletics community worry those efforts may exacerbate the problem.
“We have all this technology and everyone’s trying to create a better helmet, a better helmet,” said DeMatha Catholic High School Athletic Director Ed King. “The problem is, as you create a better helmet, now the athletes feel that they can actually hit harder with their head. So now you have the same problem over again.”
And others worry that newer helmets that some say may reduce head injuries are priced out of reach.
“I wouldn’t say cost decides it, but cost is a factor, especially when it’s not up to me,” said Montgomery Blair football coach Andrew Fields. “I don’t have a trigger on the credit card, so you’re dealing with our bureaucracy where we’d love to have the most state-of-the-art helmets on every kid. But sometimes you have to pick and choose your battles, and that’s one of them.”
A study released in October by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council found that high school football players suffered 11.2 concussions every 10,000 games and practices, a rate that was almost double that of college players. The study noted there is limited evidence “from epidemiological and biomechanical studies that current helmet designs reduce the risk of sports-related concussions.” There is evidence, though, that helmets reduce the risk of other injuries, such as skull fracture, “and thus the use of properly fitted helmets should be promoted,” it said.
Some other studies — including one published in the Journal of Neurosurgery in January — found that some helmets may reduce the risk of concussions. The study found that players wearing helmets such as the Riddell VSR4 and Revolution were more likely to have fewer concussions. The study states that, “Although helmet design may never prevent all concussions from occurring in football, evidence illustrates that it can reduce the incidence of this injury.”
High school teams invest in high-tech helmets that they believe to be safer as their budgets allow. Fields said his team wears Riddell Revolution IQ helmets, which earned four out of five stars in a May 2013 Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings Study. According to the study, the Revolution IQ retails for $222.99.
The top-rated helmet in the Virginia Tech study, the Riddell 360, received five stars and retails for $374.95. The least expensive of the four helmets to rate five stars, the Xenith X2, retails for $235.00.
“Some of those helmets they claim can reduce concussions are one and a half to two times more [money] than a typical helmet that was out two or three years ago, so those things all factor in, but cost usually trumps it all,” Fields said. “We try, but it’s hard to spend $20,000 on helmets when you have a perfectly good one in storage.”
King said his players wear Schutt or Riddell brand helmets based on their own preference; Middletown Athletic Director Mike DeSimone said the 2A state champion Knights wear helmets made by Schutt. Riddell had five helmets tested in the Virginia Tech study, and four of them received four or five stars for their safety rating. Schutt had six helmets tested — two received four stars, three received three stars and one received two stars.
But no matter the helmet, many officials say there’s much more to be done when it comes to player safety, and much of that comes back to the schools and how the teams organize practices.
Each of the five athletic directors and coaches interviewed for this story said their school has reduced the time its team spends practicing each week.
“It is not simply buying fancier, more expensive helmets that are certainly out there in the market,” McDonogh Athletic Director Mickey Deegan wrote in an email. “Most helmets cost $200 or more (Schutt, Riddell, etc.). What cuts down on concussions is safer practice sessions where players are not ‘hitting’ each other and officials being willing to penalize cheap shots to the player’s head.”
Going hand in hand with all of the new information on concussions and their impacts has been a greater awareness for coaches. While they might spend most of their free time leading up to practices game-planning, coaches know they have extra responsibilities when they’re on the practice field. They have to be watching for the signs and symptoms of concussions, too.
Each county and school has its own concussion protocols, and those protocols could lead to a player missing anywhere from one week to three or more weeks based on the severity of the concussion.
“We’re a little more tolerant when a kid tells you they have a headache or are feeling dizzy,” Fields said. “Certainly more tolerant and aware of what the possibilities are. And certainly the way your practices and drills are run, you want to be as cautious as possible.”
So even as more effort is put into helmet technology, there needs to be caution — and less reliance on the helmet saving the athlete from head injuries, some coaches say.
And King said perhaps helmet construction needs to go in a different direction.
“Here’s one for you: What would happen if you took the facemask off that helmet?” he asked. “See, then people may not want to lead with their head anymore. They may think twice.”