The Truth About the Safety Ratings That Sell Football Helmets
Virginia Tech’s STAR system is widely influential, but does it oversimplify the complex science around concussion risk?
More than 30 football helmets line the shelves in Robert Erb’s office at Schutt Sports in Litchfield, Ill., from a late-1920s leather version to a white-and-orange University of Tennessee model once worn by Peyton Manning. Tucked in among them are books and binders with titles including Neurologic Athletic Head and Spine Injuries and Concussions and Our Kids.
It’s fitting. Since Erb took over seven years ago as president and chief executive officer of privately held Schutt, the nation’s No. 2 maker of football helmets, the most important factor influencing the manufacture and marketing of helmets has become not paint, padding, or polycarbonates, but concussions—and how to minimize the chances of a player suffering one.
Erb, a voluble 55-year-old built like a 1960s NFL lineman, confronts this reality with the subtlety of a pulling guard pancaking a cornerback. “Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a hypothesis,” he says, referring to the brain affliction that has been linked to concussions.
Concussions might result mainly from whacks to the head, or they might not. “Nobody knows,” he says. “Could it be related to steroids? Weightlifting? What about genetics? Did the guy see the hit coming? Did he get enough sleep the night before?” He points at half a dozen decades-old helmets on his credenza. “There’s no evidence of CTE back then.”
But nothing about helmets and concussions gets Erb more exercised than Virginia Tech University, which has become the de facto arbiter of helmet safety. For the past four years, researchers at the home of the Hokies—alma mater of Michael Vick—have ranked football helmets on their ability to reduce concussion risk. The school’s STAR rating system assigns numerical values indicating helmets’ ability to absorb impacts. Helmets are then ranked from best to worst and grouped into categories labeled by stars: Five stars indicate the most protection, one star the least.
Erb says the ratings oversimplify the science of concussions. Although his company has produced two of Virginia Tech’s top-rated helmets, Erb says, “These ratings are misleading people. People are now using them to determine which helmets to put their youth leagues into, which is truly insane.”
Posters displaying the STAR ratings hang in NFL locker rooms. Sales of five-star helmets have soared. Virginia Tech’s rankings are so popular with parents of youth and high school players that some school administrators won’t consider buying anything but five-stars. “It’s evolved into that—it was never intended to be that,” says Stefan Duma, the professor who helped create the ratings and oversees them as head of Virginia Tech’s School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences.
In his campus lab, Duma also is surrounded by helmets of many shapes and makes. He says the STAR rankings have prodded helmet makers to design safer helmets in the same way that the federal government’s safety ratings for cars and trucks forced automakers to make safer cars.
He slaps the crown of an old A2000 Pro Elite made by Adams, a company whose helmet sales suffered in part because of poor grades from Virginia Tech. “The No. 1 message we’re trying to send is for people to get rid of those old helmets,” Duma says. “We’re proud because we’ve made that happen.”
Like boxing and smoking, football is almost impossible to do safely. It’s long been known how the sport ravages limbs. As for helmets, for decades the focus was on preventing skull fractures and spinal injuries. In 1973 the newly formed National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment adopted a test to measure G-forces inflicted on a helmet dropped from different heights onto a hard rubber pad. NOCSAE certified helmets that passed the test without ranking them in any particular order. Catastrophic skull and spinal injuries virtually disappeared, though concussions weren’t a consideration.
That changed in the 2000s as NFL and college players grew more concerned about concussions’ potential links to later-life memory loss and other brain trauma. A series of New York Times stories in 2010 raised the issue’s profile even as helmet makers themselves were drawing attention to it with assertions about their products’ anti-concussion properties. In April 2013, Riddell, Xenith, and Schutt agreed to stop making such claims as part of a Federal Trade Commission investigation into allegations of false advertising. (The manufacturers did not admit wrongdoing.) Two high school players died after blows to the head early last fall; last year a Maryland county judge refused to dismiss all claims against Schutt in a case brought by the parents of a college player who died of head injuries. (The case is still pending.) Even legendary NFL tough guy Mike Ditka recently said football is too dangerous for children to play.
At the same time, the science surrounding helmets remains inconclusive and rife with conflicts of interest among researchers with financial ties to manufacturers. Scientists generally agree that concussions are related to impacts to the head. But the variables involved—including velocity, mass, temperature, age, position of head, and, of course, level of protection—make it hard to assess the risk of one hit vs. another.
“Concussions are like snowflakes—no two are alike,” says Kevin Guskiewicz, a University of North Carolina professor who’s worked on NFL and NCAA committees on brain trauma. “The threshold for injury is elusive, and we can’t put a number on that to suggest a big-hit impact of 140 Gs is two times more likely to cause a concussion than one at 70 Gs. We have seen athletes sustain impacts at 140 Gs that did not result in a concussion, while in the same game an athlete has sustained a concussion with a 70 G impact.”
Football leagues from Pop Warner to the pros have altered rules to discourage head-to-head collisions and other dangerous hits. Parents wanted more tangible solutions—like better helmets. “As a society, we’re much more comfortable buying something to address a problem,” says Mike Oliver, NOCSAE’s executive director. “If my golf game goes to crap, I can buy lessons and change the way I play, or I can buy some new clubs. As a parent, my kid’s got a concussion risk, so I’m going to go out and buy a five-star helmet—I’m good, I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
Into this void stepped Duma, who works in a lab filled with crash-dummy heads and contraptions that slam helmets this way and that. There’s a machine that fires soccer balls and another for testing catcher’s masks. Arrayed on backlit shelves are more than 100 helmets for football, baseball, lacrosse, construction, and the military.
Publicity for the STAR (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk) ratings has helped attract money and students to Virginia Tech’s engineering college, Duma says. “Everybody involved in every sport has come to talk to us,” he says. The program doesn’t take donations from helmet makers, though the university requires it to charge fees when manufacturers seek testing for their own development purposes. Duma forbids his staff from testifying in helmet litigation. “I could stop right now and be a millionaire doing that,” he says.
Duma, 42, has spent much of his career working on automotive and military safety, once creating a computer model of a pregnant abdomen for use in auto-crash testing. About a decade ago, he and his Virginia Tech colleagues were compiling head-impact data for an auto-safety project funded by Toyota Motor and the federal government. They’d placed electronic measuring devices in football helmets used in games and practices, eventually amassing data on 2 million head impacts. Someone from the Hokie football squad asked Duma if he could recommend quality helmets. By then, Duma and his team knew players tended to get hit in the head about 1,000 times a season. They knew where helmets were struck and at what relative impacts.
The softer the blow, the more frequent it tended to be. While the lightest impacts might occur more than 200 times a season, a hit of 90 Gs or more—the kind believed more likely to cause a concussion on its own—might happen just a few times, if at all.
A modest but growing body of research suggests an accumulation of smaller hits that don’t produce concussion symptoms can lead to brain trauma later in life, similar to what is known as dementia pugilistica in boxers. A study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma in February 2014 suggested abnormal changes to the brains of high school players could occur over the course of a season without the players showing overt evidence of concussions. Separate research presented at a radiological conference in November reached similar conclusions.
“These lower-level tests really matter, because these are the hits players are seeing all the time,” Duma says. “If you want to get a five-star rating, you have to handle all sorts of hits.”
The Virginia Tech researchers dropped different helmet models fitted with shock-measuring sensors 120 times from heights ranging from 12 inches to 5 feet. They weighted each drop based on how often a certain level of impact had occurred on the field; the more times a certain type of hit occurred, no matter how soft or hard, the more importance it was assigned.
The researchers then calculated an overall value representing the number of concussions a player might experience while wearing a particular helmet in one season. The lower the value, the better a helmet was at tempering impacts.
To simplify matters for helmet buyers and parents, Duma and his team converted the values into categories of helmets ranked by stars. After Virginia Tech coaches learned that the Riddell VSR4 helmets many Hokie players wore received one star, they replaced them with higher-rated models.
“The basic idea is to give consumers scientific data they can use to make better decisions,” Duma says. Until then, “the only thing out there were sales reps saying their helmets were the best.” Virginia Tech published its first ratings in May 2011. Riddell’s Revolution Speed, the helmet most Tech players had switched to, was the only model to win five stars.
On its STAR website, Virginia Tech dutifully listed the limitations of its system. Among them: Only size-large helmets were tested. The ratings were based only on linear forces that result from direct blows rather than the rotational impacts that researchers think may play a larger role in concussions. And the one caveat many parents would prefer not to hear: No helmet is concussion-proof.
The rankings have “driven adoption of more technology in helmets,” says Thad Ide, Riddell’s senior vice president for research and product development. The company’s new SpeedFlex models offer increased flexibility in the face mask and shell—including a springy flap just above the forehead—to absorb energy. In October the helmet received the highest grade since Virginia Tech began testing, and Riddell says it’s selling well. Rawlings, after exiting the helmet business years ago, re-emerged in 2010 and now sells two five-star models. Xenith moved to a bonnet inside the helmet that allows the head to move independently of the shell. The company offers three five-star helmets. “Like it or not, Virginia Tech has become kind of like the J.D. Power for ranking helmets,” says Xenith CEO Chuck Huggins.
The independent rankings could also help shield helmet makers from product-liability claims, says Daniel Lazaroff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “It would not preclude a lawsuit or an argument that the helmet was defective, but I think it would be useful,” he says. “Of course, if the testing system is flawed, the argument is weakened.”
Twenty-one starters in Super Bowl XLIX will wear five-star helmets, mostly Riddell Revolution Speeds. Eleven will don Schutt AiR XP Pros, which have yet to be rated, though the company believes they’d garner four stars. For reasons unknown, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady trusts his brain to a one-star Riddell VSR4. Whether five-star helmets actually reduce the number of on-the-field concussions more than four- or even three-star models is undetermined.
Concussion rates in football and other high school sports more than doubled from 2005 to 2012, according to a study published last year in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. The authors attributed some of the increase to more vigilant reporting.
The International Conference on Concussion in Sport concluded in November 2012 that newer helmets reduce the severity of impacts, but “findings have not been translated to show a reduction in concussion incidence.” The federal Institute of Medicine in 2013 called the STAR system “theoretically grounded” while concluding it “cannot be directly utilized to rate helmets for pre-college-age youth.”
Manufacturers nevertheless strive to earn those five stars. “The Virginia Tech stuff is a bit of a double-edged sword,” says Kyle Lamson, senior industrial designer for Xenith. “We have five-star helmets, and we put that in the marketing stuff, but at the same time we’re not 100 percent behind all the details of that test. You don’t want to prop up something you don’t 100 percent believe in, but you can’t just ignore it.”
Schutt learned that the hard way. Upon publication of the first STAR ratings in May 2011, Schutt had no helmets ranked higher than four stars. The results cut to the heart of Schutt’s and Erb’s disagreement with Virginia Tech’s methodology.
The company believed, and still does, that the ratings give disproportionate weight to protecting against low-impact hits of 30 Gs to 60 Gs. Schutt’s helmets were designed to protect against the heavy but infrequent hits that wind up on highlight videos.
In 2012 and 2013, Schutt was again shut out of the five-star category. Out of curiosity, the company hired an outside firm to apply the Virginia Tech protocol to Schutt’s $69.99 youth helmet, which carries significantly softer padding than the Schutt models tested by the university. It would have earned five stars, Erb says. With the lack of five-star helmets hurting sales, “We got tired of fighting it,” says Cortney Warmouth, Schutt’s director of new-product development. “We decided to build a five-star helmet.”
Schutt started with two existing models: the four-star Vengeance and the as-yet-unrated AiR XP Pro. Most Schutt helmets are fitted with the company’s patented thermoplastic urethane, a waffle-like web of hollow cones that dissipate the energy of a blow along the cones’ sides.
To dictate how a particular part of the helmet takes a hit, designers vary the size and hardness of the cones and the ribs that connect them. Generally, the harder the plastic, the better it endures the hardest impacts, while performing less well against lighter ones.
For the new models, Schutt used a combination of padding tuned to score well on lower-impact hits rather than on big ones. It added ribbing so the web would be more flexible and, in effect, softer. As Schutt fully expected, the new versions each earned five stars. And they’re selling well, too, but not nearly as well as lower-rated helmets, Schutt spokesman Glenn Beckmann says. Marketing materials say the new models are “engineered to maximize performance per Virginia Tech” and therefore “may absorb less impact than other Schutt models.” It’s as if Apple unveiled its iPhone 6 with the proviso that the iPhone 5 was probably better.
Duma says the new Schutt models are “great helmets.”
Erb doesn’t necessarily take that as a compliment. “The argument for a five-star rating is that it’s better than nothing,” he says. “I say, ‘Please, don’t give us a rating.’”