NBC12 Investigates: local schools pull defective football helmet

BLACKSBURG, VA (WWBT) - Under the magic and pageantry of the Friday night lights, is a game that thrives on tackles and toughness. The hits keep coming in football. But how hard are they and are these kids really protected?

A researcher at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg made it his mission to know which helmets are working and which are not. Stefan Duma bought every helmet on the market at random so manufacturers couldn't doctor them.

For over a year he strapped them to the head of a dummy and slammed them over and over again; measuring the impacts, force of gravity and damage to the potential wearer. Duma created the country's first every football helmet rating system.

"The helmet is kind of the third layer of protection," he said. "You've got to coach well, you've got to enforce the rules and then there's the helmet."

Duma says the average high school football player takes 400 to a thousand hits a season.

"Most of the impacts are 20,30, 40G's," said Duma.

That's 20, 30 40 times the force of gravity.

"One person can have a 100G impact and be fine. Another person can have a 50G impact and have a concussion," he said.

Which is why having that extra protection inside a helmet is important.

"The players are getting bigger, faster stronger, there's no question. You've got a 300 pound guy that runs like a deer," Duma said.

He says the better helmets are bigger and have more padding.

"Now there's some real clever engineering that is going into this, but the bigger the helmet with more padding reduces acceleration, that reduces risk. These are all four and five stars. There's a lot of choice. It's not just one," he said.

He gave the best helmet- the Riddell Revolution Speed- five stars. He ranked them all the way down to the one star VSR-4 and the "not rated" Adams. He doesn't recommend either helmet.

Our investigation into 30 local high schools found that almost half still use the two worst-rated helmets in the study.

The Adams is not recommended and did not get a star, but is still listed on the rosters at Patrick Henry in Hanover, and LC Bird, Thomas Dale and James River in Chesterfield County.

13 schools in our area still use the one star VSR-4. Petersburg, Patrick Henry in Hanover. Four schools in Henrico County: Highland Spring, Deep Run, Douglas Freeman, Henrico High. Seven schools in Chesterfield County all make the list for a helmet even the manufacturer doesn't recommend. Including: Midlothian, LC Bird, Matoaca, Thomas Dale, Manchester, Monacan and Meadowbrook.

Rachel to Duma: "A few schools in our area are using the Adams. What would you say?"
Duma: "I would say they should do everything they could to get new helmets and if you're a parent and your son's in that helmet, you should go out and buy a helmet. We don't think anyone should be playing competitive football with this helmet. The Adams."

We went to all four school districts using these helmets and because of our investigation, Chesterfield, Hanover and Petersburg pulled the helmets. Henrico County has pledged to phase the low rated helmets out of use.

Henrico County Schools: "The safety of all our students, including athletes, is our top priority. The Riddell helmets referenced were approved for use and considered safe when they were purchased. Equipment manufacturers are constantly developing better equipment and we will continue to buy what is safest for our athletes. The schools using the Riddell VSR4 have and will continue to phase out the helmets in use as well." -Mychael Dickerson, Henrico School Spokesperson

Petersburg Schools: "We are glad you brought this to our attention. We've had found the helmets and pulled them from the shelves. They will not be used in the future." -William Lawson, Athletic Director for Petersburg

Hanover County Schools: "We have confirmed the Adams and Riddell VSR-4 helmets are not in use this season and are due to be cycled out of inventory at the completion of the season. All equipment used by Hanover County Public Schools meets approved safety standards.  At the end of each season, equipment such as football helmets is shipped to a company that provides a rigorous testing process. Following the testing procedures, the equipment is re-certified and returned to the school after meeting all standards... Hanover Schools follows the continuous process of phasing out older helmets and replacing them with the newest models that may offer greater protection. The research conducted by Virginia Tech reinforces the purpose for our phase out process and will provide a standard as new equipment is purchased annually." -Linda Scarborough, Hanover Schools

Chesterfield County Schools: "With regard to helmet replacement and reconditioning, all helmets used in school physical activities much conform to the National Operations Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) and be certified as conforming by the manufacturer at the time of purchase. Reconditioned helmets that have been purchased must be re-certified as conforming to the NOCSAE by the reconditioner. In our football helmet inventory of over 1,200 helmets, we previously had just over 10 helmets that were not recommended for use according to the referenced study. Those helmets are no longer in use."- Shawn Smith, Chesterfield Schools.

What advanced helmets do is lower the risk. There's no correlation between cost and safety. The worst helmet on the list- retails for $200. There's a four star helmet for $170.

Take a look at your child's helmet tonight.

Here's a link to the rankings system: http://www.sbes.vt.edu/nid.php

Copyright 2011 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved.