Article Written by: Taylor Rosen
Graphics by: Jamie Dillon
The safety of athletes is a discussion that has been at the forefront of America’s news cycle for the last decade. With all of the technological advancements we’ve made as a society, it’s much easier to accurately diagnose the magnitude of an injury.
These numerous technological advancements haven’t just improved the ability to properly diagnose a head injury, they’ve also enhanced the overall quality and reliability of football helmets in recent years.
Erin Griffin, Vice President of Marketing & Communications at Riddell, explained how Riddell products display an array of those advancements, and how the company has always rooted and designed equipment through science and years of research.
“Our helmets are informed by years of head impact data collected on football fields across all levels of competition,” Griffin said. “Riddell’s latest helmet, the Riddell SpeedFlex, is the first helmet to incorporate flexibility into the shell and face mask. The “Flex System” on the SpeedFlex flexes to reduce the impact forces players see on the field.”
15 years ago, it was a challenge for medical professionals to know the specific extent of a head injury. Just five years ago, it was normal for football programs to reissue helmets that were up to 10 years old. Advancements in research have changed all of that.
In a bill Congress titled H.R. 1127 and introduced in 2011, it states “A football helmet’s ability to protect players from injury by attenuating acceleration forces can decline over time as the helmet experiences thousands of hits from use during successive football seasons after its original date of manufacture. According to industry estimates, 100,000 football helmets more than ten years old, and thousands almost twenty years old, were worn by players in the 2009 season.”
Glenn Beckmann, Director of Marketing Communications at Schutt Sports, dissected the reasons behind why a helmet should never be used for more than 10 years.
Beckmann stated that Schutt Sports follows the guidelines of the National Athletic Reconditioner Association (NAERA). He referenced a requirement to comply with those specific guidelines when reissuing and reconditioning helmets.
“The best helmet for any player is the helmet that fits them the best,” Beckmann said. “If a helmet fits well a player is more likely to wear it properly. The NAERA guidelines that were implemented three years ago state no helmet that’s been used for 10 years or more can be reconditioned. We will tell coaches we can’t send them back.”
Helmets only have a shelf life of a few years before they have to be reconditioned, which puts a burden on the financially independent youth clubs that have to pay the cost to purchase and maintain the equipment.
“Well, in a perfect world we would love every helmet to be reconditioned every season,” Beckmann said. “We know financially, that’s not an achievable goal. It’s a cheap process in comparison to buying new helmets, but it’s still an expense every year that many football programs simply cannot afford.”
Coaches are required to keep track of their helmets. Usually, they will categorize them by years of use. When it’s time for the helmet to be reconditioned, they will send them back to the manufacturer, or to a local reconditioning facility.
Once they arrive at the reconditioning facilities, the helmets are taken apart, sanitized, and checked for cracks. Once a helmet passes initial inspection, it’s then buffed, polished, repainted, and reassembled.
Beckmann recommended that helmets be conditioned at least every other year to ensure they’re still usable, but even that is a cost most youth clubs can’t afford.
Greg Mazzagatti, President of the Green youth football league, explained how most youth clubs go about providing the proper equipment to its players.
“There’s absolutely no government funding,” Mazzagatti said. “We cover the costs as an organization on our own. It’s through our registration fees. We don’t have anything coming in from the federal or state level.”
It’s up to the individual program and the surrounding community to provide the funds to purchase and maintain the equipment. That creates for a major disadvantage to the coaches and players who represent those communities that don’t have a sufficient budget in place.
Christopher Watson, the Head Athletic Trainer at Malone University, discussed the differences in equipment standards at the collegiate level, and also offered his opinion on the differing quality of equipment at the youth level.
“Across the board, at the collegiate level, the safety standards and equipment is pretty much the same,” Watson said. “The NCAA regulates practice time, contact time, and equipment. The size of the school means a ton. A school like Ohio State has a much larger budget, which means they have more equipment. So we have the same quality of equipment, but just not as much.”
In section 2.2.3 of the NCAA’s equipment operation rules, it states “It is the responsibility of each member institution to protect the health of and provide a safe environment for each of its participating student-athletes.”
As a governing body, the NCAA ensures that all of its players use the same quality of equipment, but why that isn’t a requirement at the youth level, when it’s been proven that children face more health-related risks, is a question not many have answers for.
“You would think there would be some equality across the board,” Watson said. Every nine-year-old football player should be issued the same equipment, but that’s not how it works.”
“Unfortunately it’s left up to the individual organization and the surrounding community,” Watson added. “Most of the time, nothing happens until something bad happens.”
Youth football is the root of the collegiate and professional levels. If youth football came to an abrupt end, it would directly impact the sport at both the collegiate and professional level in the immediate future.
A young child shouldn’t be paralyzed for life because of a lack of community funding for up-to-date equipment. Children face more risks when playing the game, which should create a consistent sense of urgency to make the youth level safer across the board, but that’s not what’s happening.
“The younger the patient, the more severe a head injury can be because the brain is still developing,” Watson said. “College kids don’t face the same risk because their brain development is pretty much complete. But for people under 20, especially the youth players, it’s a really serious issue if they suffer a head injury.”
If the goal is to keep all children as safe as possible; every youth club should be required to wear the same quality of equipment. If changes aren’t made in the funding aspect of youth football, the NFL and NCAA will likely see their talent pools significantly drained in the future.
— Taylor Rosen (@T_Rosen_) September 19, 2016