Players come and go, but football helmets get passed on to new players, season after season, year after year. Here's some basic information parents should know about the football helmets their children are wearing:
Q. Which football helmets provide the best protection from concussion?
A. All new football helmets are certified to meet the performance standard set by the National Operating Committee for Sports Equipment (NOCSAE) when they leave the factory, but whether one protects against concussion better than another is open to debate. Here's what the NOCSAE stated in a recent newsletter when asked this question:
NOCSAE cannot answer that question and probably should not. The mechanism of a concussive injury are better understood than even 5 years ago, and much is being learned everyday, but there is more that remains to be understood. ... The conclusion as to which helmet does a better job in reducing or preventing concussions is better addressed by the manufacturers. NOCSAE believes that every helmet which has been certified to our standard does a remarkable job in reducing head injuries and their severity, including concussions, but there are many variables that may contribute to the occurrence of a concussion which are unrelated to helmet design and performance. All the helmet manufacturers have incorporated changes in design and materials to address the issue of concussion prevention and related injuries. These 'new' designs have all been tested and certified as meeting the NOCSAE standard, and the various manufacturers strongly believe in their helmets and their unique benefits.
In recent years, football helmets have come under increased scrutiny in Congress and by regulatory agencies, including the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has begun a formal investigation into football helmet safety. Senator Tom Udall (D. New Mexico) has called for a formal investigation by the Federal Trade Commission of helmet makers, specifically Riddell and Schutt, for potentially false and misleading advertising regaridng the safety properties of their helmets. On March 8, 2011, two Democratic congressmen asked that a hearing be held by a subcommittee of the House of Representatives on football helmet safety, including the use of old helmets. Development of further safety-related measures, such as warning labels explaining the limited ability of helmets to protect against concussions, may be the result.
Q. Does the test performed on helmets in order to obtain NOCSAE certification tell parents which helmet provides the best protection for their children?
A. The short answer, according to the NOCSAE, is no. That is because "the NOCSAE [current] standard is premised on a pass/fail threshold that uses an impact energy evaluation algorithm which generates a number called the Severity Index (SI), from each test impact. In order to be certified or recertified (see below), a helmet must generate an SI score less than 1200 at all impacts. This simply means that a helmet either passes or it doesn't. ... NOCSAE licensees, whether manufacturer or reconditioner, are prohibited from using the SI scores as support for any claims that their helmets are better in any aspect than other helmets with different scores."
In January 2011, however, NOCSAE announced that it would pursue several new safety measures, including developing a test standard that considers the complex forces that cause concussions and a separate test standard for youth and high school helmets.
In June 2013, NOCSAE approved the development of a revised helmet standard requiring helmets to limit certain concussion-causing forces.
In June 2014, NOCSAE voted to approve a proposed standard requiring helmets to limit certain concussion-causing forces, both linear and rotational, and opened up the proposed standards for public comment until June 2015, at which time, provided there are no revisions, the board is expected to vote to finalize the standard and require implementation by manufacturers by June 2016.
Q. How do I know if my child's helmet is NOCSAE-certified?
A. Those helmets which meet the NOCSAE standard must bear the seal, "Meets NOCSAE standards" and the logo for that type of helmet. The seal and logo are permanently branded or stamped on the outside rear portion of the helmet. All NOCSE-certified helmets also must have a standard warning label affixed to the inside and/or outside of the shell regarding safety and proper use of the helmet. Removal of any warning lablels is against the regulations of the NOCSAE standard.
Q. My child's football program issued him a used helmet. How often is the program required to recondition that helmet?
A. The NOCSAE standards do not specify or require recertification or reconditioning of helmets on any particular schedule or frequency. And except for California (which requires annual inspections), there is no state law or regulation that requires reconditioning or recertification with any specific frequency. The NOCSAE standard requiring inspections of football helmets and shoulder pads every two years, however, has been adopted by every state association playing under National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and NCAA rules:
- NOCSAE and the National Athletic Equipment Reconditioners Association (NAERA) recommend that helmets should be cleaned and regularly inspected, and that each school implement a program of regular reconditioning and recertification. The most common schedule is to send approximately half of the helmets for reconditioning and recertification every year, with a recognition that inspection may identify a helmet that is in need of reconditioning even though it may not be due for another year.
- A manufacturer may premise warranty coverage upon regular reconditioning and recertification, but that requirement is not mandated by the NOCSAE standards.
- A manufacturer is also free to limit the number of times its helmet may be reconditioned, or it may establish a useful life beyond which it will not allow reconditioning. For instance, according to a letter from Xenith Helmets, sent out by the NOCSAE to school superintendents about football helmet reconditioning and recertification with letters from the other three football helmet manufacturers -Schutt, Riddell, and Adams (Rawlings helmets were just coming on the market in the fall of 2010), Xenith "strongly recommends that every football helmet should be reconditioned annually but not less than every two years by a company which is licensed by the NOCSAE." Xenith also recommends that each school ensure that an athletic staff member be responsible for regularly inspecting and cleaning each football helmet during the football season. Xenith's football helmet warranty is conditioned on use of only Xenith-authorized reconditioners at least once every two years. Call 1-866-888-23221-866-888-2322 to obtain a list of authorized reconditioners.
- The national governing bodies of high school and youth football (the National Federation of State High School Associations and USA Football, respectively), who cover 4.4 million players age 6 to 18, only require that helmets leave the factory with NOCSAE certification. While experts have long discouraged use of helmets more than 10 years old, the NFHS has always left the decision to schools and manufacturers, according to Bob Colgate, the organization's assistant director. As a result, helmets of any age can be worn, despite concerns about the ability of the helmet, as a result of stiffening of the foam and degrading of the polycarbonate shell, to protect the player against head injury, including concussion.
A. Recertified helmets are identified by an appropriate NOCSAE seal affixed by the reconditioner inside the helmet: "This helmet has been RECERTIFIED according to the procedures established to meet the NOCSAE STANDARD". Only reconditioners who have been licensed by the NOCSAE may affix the NOCSAE seal. Non-licensed reconditioners may save your child's football program money but doing so jeopardizes your child's health, safety and welfare. Football referees are usually instructed to ask coaches before a game if all their players are properly equipped and should look for helmets that do not have proper recertification stickers. Unfortunately, even the recertification sticker may not be enough, as was made clear when a massive financial fraud was uncovered in New Jersey in 2008 involving a helmet reconditioner that lied about critical helmet safety tests and gave kickbacks to school officials.
Q. Is my child's football program required to keep records tracking the use of its helmets?
A. No. Few high schools appear to track who wore the helmet, when they wore it, what position they played but most keep copies of records provided by licensed helmet reconditioners.
Q. How long can a football helmet be used?
A. Some football helmet manufacturers have a shelf-life for their helmets, others don't. Riddell has a 10-year shelf-life on its helmets. Once they hit the 10-year mark, reconditioners must disassemble helmets and send the shell back to schools showing they have been destroyed. Schutt Sports, on the other hand, has no shelf-life for its helmets, feeling that the shell is fine until the parts inside need to be replaced or the shell is cracked, which may be as long as 12 to 16 years.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: On March 9, 2011, NAERA announced that it would longer accept helmets more than 10 years old for reconditioning. For full story, click here.
Q. I am concerned that my son's football program doesn't have the money to replace old, worn-out helmets when they have reached the end of their useful life or recondition helmets every other year. Is a lack of funding a legitimate worry?
A. Absolutely. A November 2010 survey of 300 players, 100 coaches, 100 parents and 100 athletic trainers in 23 states by ESPN The Magazine reported that, while all groups gave the condition of their team's helmets a passing grade (A- from the coaches, B+ from the trainers and parents, and a B from the players), fourteen players handed out more failing grades (12) than the other groups combined (four). All groups agreed that funding was an issue. As one Michigan linebacker told the magazine, "My school says we don't have the money for new helmets or for fixing up old ones. I have the same beat-up helmet I had last year."
The financial impact of the new NAERA rule on school and youth football organizations, already under budgetary stress as a result of the weak economy, may be considerable: reconditioning old helmets costs about $30 to $40 per helmet (McGuine, et al. 2014), while new helmets can cost from $150 to $350 a helmet, depending on the helmet.
July 29, 2014 Update: A study of concussions in high school football by researchers at the University of Wisconsin published online ahead of print in the American Journal of Sports Medicine (McGuine, et al. 2014) found that the age or recondition status of helmets were not associated with a lower risk of sport-related concussion (SRC), with a similar risk of SRC regardless of whether the helmet was new, used in the same year as it was reconditioned, or reconditioned in previous years. It noted that, since 2013, helmet manufacturers have recommended that helmets be reconditioned yearly.
ESPN The Magazine, "Concussion Confidential" (accessed December 21, 2010 at http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/news/story?id=5925876
McGuine TA, Hetzel S, McCrea M, Brooks AM. Protective Equipment and Player Characteristics Associated With the Incidence of Sport-Related Concussion in High School Football Players. Am J Sports Med. 2014;20(10)(published online ahead of print, July 24, 2014 as doi:10.1177/036354651541926.
NAERA Press Release: Effective September 1, 2011 NAERA members will not recondition/recertify any
football helmet 10 years of age or older (accessed March 11, 2011 at http://www.naera.net/PDF/For%20Immediate%20Release%2020%20Year%20Policy%...)
Schwarz A. Group to Phase Out Old Football Helmets. New York Times (accessed March 11, 2011 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/11/sports/football/11helmet.html?emc=tnt&... (accessed March 11, 2011).
Posted January 27, 2010; updated March 11, 2011, updated August 2, 2011, updated July 29, 2014