WUSA9 Investigation: Area school football helmets ranked

WASHINGTON (WUSA) -- A WUSA9 investigation indicates some area high schools are using helmets that rate low in impact studies while others are already using helmets rated "good" and are moving towards helmets that scored even higher at protecting players.

The Virginia Tech study rates helmets using stars. The scores range from five star meaning best available to one star meaning marginal or even lower, NR meaning not recommended for use.

Findings at a glance:

Every school system had helmets in its inventory rating at least a four and some had fives mixed in with lower rated gear.

Montgomery Co.: as low as three star helmets.

Loudoun County.: as low as three star helmets..

Fairfax Co.: as low as two star helmets.

Prince George's Co.: as low as one star helmets.

District Schools: as low as two star helmets.

Arlington Co.: as low as two star helmets.

Alexandria: as low as two star helmets.

Experts believe hard hits and tough tackles during football games can lead to concussions or even death from traumatic brain injuries. A study updated Wednesday from Virginia Tech Wake Forest University says some helmets protect student athletes from impact better than others.

Investigative Reporter Russ Ptacek spent months collecting data from area high schools and the results that may have you asking your school what gear is your child wearing on the field.

WUSA9's open records investigation found high school football players could be wearing a helmet rated "marginal" or "adequate" while other players in the same district are protected with helmets rated very good or the best available at reducing the risk of head injuries.

Virginia Tech came up with a 5 star rating system aimed at helping schools, families and football players.

Last fall when 16-year-old Judah Canizares's Richard Montgomery High School team was battling Poolesville, Canizares made the news for being "carried off in an ambulance" with a "head injury."

Carnizares says he got I got hit in the head and for like seconds it felt really hazy and foggy, he doesn't remember which helmet he was wearing that night and says he still suffers from headaches.

Six football players have collectively won settlements against a helmet manufacturer.

Star linebacker Timothy Robinson was one of them. In 2009 in Mobile Alabama, Robinson made a clutch tackle in the fourth quarter, taking his opponent down, but he never got up. Timothy spent ten days in a coma and has not walked since.

In Maryland, at Frostburg State, Derek Sheely continued playing despite a concussion. In 2011, he collapsed at practice a week later he died.

Sheely, and other injured players inspire the work of professor Stefan Duma, a bio-mechanics injury expert at Virginia Tech.

He says there was no way for any consumer to get any idea of what helmet was better and it was purely what it looked liked and what it cost.

Duma says his group was the first group to present independent biomechanical data and encourages people to use it.

All the helmets used by area high school players are approved by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment – which until now had been the industry's only watchdog.

The Committee questions Virginia Tech's study and continues to certify helmets that Virginia Tech ranks low.

Dave Halestead, Technical Director at NOCSAE says there is no science to support there is a difference among the helmets used in the Virginia Tech system. He says it's really easy to convey to somebody, this one performs better than that one in this test so therefore you need to have it and says the problem is that Virginia Tech test in not related to what is actually occurring.

Judah Carnizares doesn't plan to quit the game and says some players are choosing to purchase better gear themselves and have to get the purchase approved by the coach.

To find out which helmets high schools in our area are using, WUSA9 sent open records requests to DC, Montgomery County, Prince George's, Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun County and Alexandria asking for the makes and models of its helmets and then we compared that to the STAR ratings.

In Montgomery County where Judah plays, the lowest rated helmet we identified there was a three out of five stars.

Montgomery County school officials say they've implemented a concussion testing system and extensive training to minimize risk.

In Fairfax, the lowest rated helmet we found was a two star. In a statement, Fairfax County questioned the Virginia Tech Star Rating system saying it's not always practical when applied to real world scenarios.

In Loudoun County, we identified helmets rated as low as three, but officials tell us as they purchase new equipment, they're buying only helmets rated four or five.

In Prince George's County we found helmets rated as low as one.

In the District, Arlington County, and Alexandria, our review identified helmets rated as low as two. After WUSA9 started asking questions, Arlington announced they plan to use the ratings in future buying decisions.

And Alexandria officials contacted us saying they would no longer be using two rated helmets.

We told school board members in each area about our findings and will report if they make any changes.

Professor Duma makes it clear that concussions can and do happen in every helmet in the market.

Schools responded to our open records requests with district wide inventories. To get your team specifics, experts say you should ask the school or coach.

Helmet Safety Tips:

  • Ask the coach the make and model of the helmet to measure it against the VA tech 5 star ratings
  • Ask the coach the age of the helmet. No player should be wearing a helmet 10 years or older.
  • Ask the coach the helmet reconditioning schedule. It's typically done once a year but a damaged helmet or one with older padding inside could create an unknown risk..
  • Make sure the fit of the helmet is correct. If it's too tight or too loose, that can be a safety risk.


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