Long Island high schools spent more than $730,000 on nearly 3,000 top-rated football helmets during the past year in an effort to reduce head injuries and concussions.
For the second straight year, Newsday examined the issue of head safety in football at Long Island high schools, including analyzing helmet inventories at 108 of the 116 public and private high schools with football programs, purchase orders from 92 high schools and concussion reports at 109 high schools.
Among the findings:
- The number of five-star helmets — considered best at reducing the risk of concussions, according to safety ratings released by Virginia Tech researchers — more than doubled in the past year, jumping to 6,285 this season from 2,898 at the start of last season. That represents more than half of the 11,093 helmets in circulation. The number of four-star helmets dropped to 3,874 from 4,576, and the number of three-star helmets decreased to 450 from 612.
- The number of one- and two-star helmets — considered “low performers” at reducing the risk of concussion — is down to 139 from 885 last year. Many of those low-performing helmets, athletic directors said, are no longer being used.
- In all, Long Island school districts spent $734,558.75 on 2,956 new helmets. Twelve public high schools have not purchased new helmets since the beginning of the 2015 season.
- There were 383 suspected concussions in the 2015 football season at 109 schools that responded to Newsday’s queries. There were 373 suspected concussions in 2014 at 105 schools that responded. Dawn Comstock, an epidemiology professor at the University of Colorado who has been tracking concussions since 2006, said she is starting to see concussion numbers level off after years of significant increases.
- Ten schools said they did not remove a player for a suspected concussion on either their varsity or junior varsity team. The number of schools saying they had no suspected concussions in 2014 was 14.
High school administrators, football coaches and neurologists said that having the best equipment is necessary in a game in which hits to the head happen on every play.
On Long Island, there are approximately 10,000 student-athletes playing on 233 varsity, junior varsity and freshman football teams at 116 public and private high schools.
Virginia Tech researchers in 2011 began publishing safety ratings that grade helmets on their ability to reduce head acceleration within the helmet on impact.
Stefan Duma, the lead author of Virginia Tech’s study, said last year that he was surprised so many one- and two-star helmets remained in circulation on Long Island. Duma said he is pleased that number is down to 139 out of the 11,093 helmets listed on inventories at 107 public and one private high school.
“When you see the schools taking an active stance and using the research and using the science to make their decisions, that’s great,” Duma said. “That’s what we hope happens.”
Virginia Tech’s independently funded laboratory testing consists of dropping a helmet 120 times from predetermined heights to simulate the forces of impact that its research says a football player would expect to experience during a season.
All of the helmets rated by Virginia Tech are permitted to be used by high school football players on Long Island because they meet the standard set by National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), which oversees football helmet use on all levels, including the National Football League.
Reacting to the study
The spike in helmet purchases at Long Island high schools since the beginning of the 2015 football season came amid and after a Newsday/News 12 special report in October 2015 that examined head safety.
Newsday obtained updated helmet inventories and recent helmet purchase order forms from the 107 public high schools with football programs via Freedom of Information Law requests.
Private schools are not bound by the same public-records laws as public schools. Long Island Lutheran was the only one of the nine private schools with football teams to provide inventory information.
The average cost of a new five-star helmet purchased in the past year was $254.52, according to Newsday’s analysis. The most expensive helmet model was Riddell’s SpeedFlex with built-in sensor technology. The Oyster Bay school district bought four at $429.75 per helmet to supplement its existing inventory. The least expensive five-star helmet was Schutt’s Vengeance VTD, of which the Valley Stream school district bought 55 for $99 per helmet. Prices on helmet models varied by district depending on the vendor, incentives and time of the year.
A total of 20 school districts, encompassing 27 high schools, spent more than $10,000 on new helmets. Eleven of the districts spent more than $20,000 on new helmets. Such large purchases are unusual because schools typically purchase six to 12 helmets a year to replace the ones that are old or damaged. Helmets have a 10-year life span, according to the National Athletic Equipment Reconditioners Association.
Farmingdale, which has one of the largest football programs on Long Island, spent $72,609 in July on 210 new Riddell SpeedFlex helmets, which are rated third by Virginia Tech among the 16 five-star helmet models.
“The report came out and showed we didn’t have any five-star helmets,” Farmingdale coach Buddy Krumenacker said. “The superintendent, John Lorentz, decided this was something we should do.”
Farmingdale’s inventory previously included mostly four-star helmets. Researchers say the difference between a five-star helmet and a four-star helmet is not significant. But because helmets have a life span of 10 years, many of those four-star helmets were older, so Farmingdale decided to replace them.
Harborfields, Herricks, Hewlett, North Babylon, Plainedge and Wyandanch also purchased an entirely new inventory of five-star helmets since the first report. All of the schools cited the report as a reason.
At Harborfields, parents of football players were the driving force behind the district’s decision, according to athletic director John Valente. In an invoice dated Oct. 16, 2015, nine days after the report, Harborfields ordered 75 of the Schutt Vengeance VTD II, which at the time was the highest-rated helmet by Virginia Tech. Harborfields’ new helmets cost $15,177.
“The safety of the kid comes first for me, no matter what,” Valente said. “But it’s going to be interesting to see down the road — when there are either more studies done or people try to do studies to refute the Virginia Tech study — to see if every time somebody comes out with a document that says the helmets you have are questionable, all you need to do is question that stuff and people will be like, ‘We’ll go out and buy new helmets again.’ And as you know, these helmets are expensive.”
At Wyandanch, athletic director and football coach Dwight Singleton said it was not difficult to persuade the school administration to purchase new helmets. The district, with one of the smallest football programs on Long Island, spent $8,010 on 33 Schutt Vengeance VTD II and Vengeance Z10 helmets.
“We’re trying to build a program from the bottom and if you don’t have the proper equipment, the goodwill is out the window,” he said.
In October 2015, Newsday found that there were 60 high schools with low-performing helmets still in circulation. This season, 22 high schools still have those helmets. However, many of those helmets, athletic directors said, are no longer in use.
The Valley Stream district, which includes three high schools, had the highest number of low-performing helmets in inventory this season. District athletic director Scott Stueber said, “I know for a fact they haven’t been used in three years.” The district has spent $21,065.56 on 137 new helmets since March.
Smithtown had a total of 18 two-star helmets and two one-star helmets listed among the inventories of its two high school football programs. “I think we’re just going to throw them out,” athletic director Pat Smith said, “because they just don’t get used.”
There were 383 suspected concussions in the 2015 football season at 109 schools that responded to Newsday’s requests. There were 373 suspected concussions in 2014 at 105 schools that responded.
Comstock attributed the leveling off of reported concussions at the high schools she tracks nationally to years of increased awareness. She cautioned not to read too much into school-reported concussion numbers because of the significant variables involved, most notably the subjective nature of trying to evaluate concussions. What one person might call a headache, she said, another might accurately see as symptoms of a concussion.
“There is no national reporting mandate,” she said, “and no standards for reporting.”
How often an athletic trainer is present during practices and games can have a direct effect on a school’s concussion numbers, she said. On Long Island, the presence of an athletic trainer varies from district to district.
In an effort to reduce concussions, the state’s governing body for public school sports mandated this season that teams could only practice in “full contact” settings twice a week for a maximum of 90 minutes per practice. Previously there had been no limit.
Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the research center examining brain trauma at Boston University, said studies have shown that the majority of concussions in football go unreported, which complicates experts’ ability to assess year-to-year numbers.
“We still diagnose only a fraction of all concussions,” he said, “so we could be preventing more concussions through rule changes, but also diagnosing more total concussions through improved education and culture change.”
Experts also say proper tackling — without using one’s head — is key to avoiding head trauma. Section VIII, the governing body for public high school athletics in Nassau County, now requires its high school football coaches to attend a clinic that shows proper tackling technique, county football coordinator Pat Pizzarelli said. Suffolk encourages its high school coaches to attend, said Don Webster, executive director of Section XI.
“The nature of football makes it obvious that concussions will never be able to be eliminated from the game,” Central Islip athletic director Larry Philips said, “but we want to do our best to greatly reduce the incidence and severity of head injuries.”
Researchers at Virginia Tech test football helmets’ ability to reduce head acceleration and the risk of concussion. A five-star helmet is deemed best at reducing risk. On Long Island, there are 11,042 helmets at the 108 high schools that responded to Newsday’s request for the most current inventory.