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Football helmet safety questions come to a head

Evan Walsh helps set up the linear impactor to simulate a football collision. Research assistants in the neurotrauma impact science lab at the University of Ottawa are developing new 3-D impact protocol for evaluating helmet safety in Ottawa, Sept. 19, 2011.

Blair Gable for the Globe and Mail/blair gable The Globe and Mail

Ashton Adams felt the helmets handed out by his high-school football team seemed outdated, so he spent $230 on a new Riddell Revolution helmet for himself.

The 18-year-old senior defensive tackle at Jacob Hespeler Secondary School in Cambridge, Ont., says it's gritty on the line, and anything goes.

"Every single play I'm smacking my helmet against another guy's helmet," said Mr. Adams.

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Concussion awareness is at an all-time high in youth football, leading many players and parents to wonder which headgear is the best, as manufacturer's websites sparkle with sleek, glossy helmet photos and claims of revolutionary new technology to protect a kid's noggin.

Many experts on helmet testing say there is no one model on the market that can be labelled the absolute safest. Football helmets are designed to protect against catastrophic injuries like skull fractures and are very successful at doing so. But no helmet can stop the brain from rattling around inside the skull from the impact of a blow.

Yet, in May, researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University produced the first model-by-model ranking for concussion resistance of helmets. First, they measured more than a million head impacts at Virginia Tech football practices and games using helmet sensors, which sent data wirelessly to sideline laptops, then cross-referenced those hits with instances of concussions. They also crash-tested 10 different helmet models with the drop test currently used by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) to certify helmets.

With that data, the Virginia Tech researchers came up with a star rating, like one provided for car-shopping consumers. The Riddell Revolution Speed was deemed safest and got five stars. They awarded four stars to the Schutt ION 4D, the Schutt DNA Pro, the Xenith X1, the Riddell Revolution and the Riddell Revolution IQ. The Schutt Air XP got three stars, the Riddell VSR4 got one, and the Adams A2000 Pro Elite got a "Not Recommended" label.

The study made headlines, but many of the manufacturers questioned the methodology, as did some other researchers in the field. The Virginia Tech study focuses on linear impact: direct helmet-to-helmet contact. But many neurology experts believe rotational or angular impact – blows that twist or rotate the head – plays a role in concussion.

"Taking four or five helmets certified to the same standard and saying, here's 'how they compare on linear impact,' I don't really think that helps the consumer at all," said Blaine Hoshizaki, director of the University of Ottawa's Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory.

"These are all very safe helmets, and once you get beyond those, it's unpredictable to suggest one helmet is better than another. We can bring helmets into our lab and change the order of performance on every test."

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Eye on Innovations

Dr. Hoshizaki and his University of Ottawa team were recently awarded a grant from NOCSAE to develop a new assessment protocol for football helmets, as its current drop test has gone largely unchanged since it was devised in 1973.

"In the last number of years, we have been publishing and talking to the leagues and organizations telling them 'your testing protocol is your problem,' said Dr. Hoshizaki, who acted as a consultant to Xenith when it developed its X1 model. "Our goal is to establish a protocol so they can test accurately and reliably the performance of their helmets in managing angular and linear acceleration and the implications of that on the risk of concussion."

As researchers at Purdue University are studying the brains of high-school football players and measuring the magnitude of blows to the head, they are also examining different ways to pad the inside of helmets to see if they can improve the way hits are absorbed.

"We are always trying new materials to see which ones absorb energy best," said Eric Nauman, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue. "We're hoping to start rolling out new materials as soon as we can for the interior of the helmets. Right now, we're working on military helmets but hope to transition to athletics."

Heads up

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But Prof. Nauman emphasizes that the way a player uses his helmet is outside the control of researchers and manufacturers, noting that changing technique and culture are still crucial.

"Leading with the head is something we have seen a lot in our study, and in many cases it's a smaller player who feels it's the only advantage he has, using his head as a weapon," said Prof. Nauman. "If you make better helmets, do the players decide to use those helmets as a weapon even more?"

Many coaches say they are on diligent patrol for hits that put players at risk.

"In practice, if a kid is dipping his head, a coach is all over that," said Ivan Yurgan, football coach at Assumption Catholic Secondary School in Burlington, Ont.. "[Telling the player]'get our head up.' "

The importance of reconditioning

While parents may worry about their kids' football teams handing down helmets from previous seasons, most teams do send their helmets to a NOCSAE licensed re-conditioner, where they are taken apart, cleaned, sanitized, and parts are repaired, before they are re-assembled, retested and sent back to the team.

Common practice is to have each helmet reconditioned every two to three years, at a cost of roughly $30 to $50 dollars per helmet. Riddell, Xenith and Adams will recondition helmets until they are 10 years old before recommending they no longer be worn. Schutt does not give a shelf-life for its helmets.

"It's very costly for a program to do reconditioning, but it's not something we would never cut corners on," said Kevin Watrin, head football coach at Mission Secondary School in Mission, B.C. "I feel really good about the quality and condition of our helmets, but if I have a kid who wants to go down to the U.S. or on to Craigslist to buy himself a brand new one – and I have eight or 10 out of 80 players who have done it – that is their right to do that."

Some leagues or school boards check to see whether a school has done its reconditioning, so the onus is on the team.

"You have to pay for quality, and kids today know the difference," said Frank Rocca, head football coach at St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School in Sudbury, Ont., who says his team spends about $1,000 per season on reconditioning helmets. "I can say with confidence that the teams we see all have top-quality helmets. No kid wants to play in junky equipment, and most teams do a good job of making kids feel protected."

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Sports reporter

Based in Toronto, Rachel Brady writes on a number of sports for The Globe and Mail, including football, tennis and women's hockey. More

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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