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N4T Investigators: Helmet Hazards - KVOA | KVOA.com | Tucson, Arizona

N4T Investigators: Helmet Hazards

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TUCSON- It may be America's favorite sport, but football is also one of the most dangerous to play. From youth leagues to the NFL, it appears all levels are trying to reduce the number head injuries. But what if you found out your loved one was wearing a piece of equipment that didn't offer the best protection available?

The News 4 Tucson Investigators found out not all helmets are created equally. While some schools have the best available helmets, not all of the student athletes have the same amount of protection, which could mean a higher risk of head injuries like a concussion.

It's Friday night, fans are gathered under the lights at Sunnyside High School. The rain may be coming down, but it seems like nobody is turning away.

"We are out regardless of the weather or what's going on win or lose," said Carrie Schute who is watching her grandson play for Buena High School.

In the first quarter, a player goes down after a big hit. The game stops, but fortunately he's able to walk off on his own. But on the sidelines, our cameras are rolling, and it appears a coach is giving that player a concussion test. It's something a parent never wants to see, but it's the reality of the sport. That's why parents want to make sure their child has the best protection available.

In the video shown, this is a glimpse into the Biomedical Engineering and Sciences Lab at Virginia Tech and what you're seeing has become the de facto standard for the industry. Each football helmet is tested 120 times, some know it as the "drop test." From five different levels and four different directions, scientists test the impact absorbed by each helmet and they're rated from five stars, which is the best, to "not recommended."

"It's just a matter of making the decision on safety and quality as opposed to exclusively making it on cost," said Ricardo Valerdi, from the University of Arizona. Valerdi studies concussions and the Virginia Tech Rating System and says it's designed to help people make smarter choices about football helmets.

"You can still get a concussion with a 5 star rating helmet, there's no question but the risk of it is going to be reduced," said Valerdi.

The N4T Investigators contacted various schools both public and private to find out what helmets they're all using. We found the majority of schools in Southern Arizona are using five and four star rated helmets, meaning they're considered "best available" or "very good," we did find out some districts

"We feel like we're very conscientious," said Joe Burnside, the athletic director at Safford Middle School.

We interviewed Burnside during Homecoming, as the school was celebrating its 100th year in existence. It's a place that's carried a football team for decades. Outside the school on a murial, there's a picture of former students playing football, back to the time when players wore leather helmets.

Bret Buganski asked Burnside, "what do you tell parents whose kids are playing football that have that 2 star rated helmet?

"You know it's not something that we've really paid much attention to, now that you brought it to my attention I will," said Burnside.

Burnside said he's confident his vendor is selling the district safe helmets, but he admitted he wasn't familiar with the Virginia Tech Football Helmet Ratings.

Buganski asked, "does it make you reconsider the safety of the helmets that you currently use?"

"I will definitely follow up on that and I will check with my company that I deal with," said Burnside.

"I really trust our athletic trainer, and just their vendors that they're going to sell us good helmets," said Greg Duce, athletic director at Buena High School.

Buena High School says its in the process of phasing out its two star rated helmets.

Buganski asked Duce,"why phase them out next year rather than doing it presently knowing the rating?"

"Yeah, well and what we will do is currently we have 8 of them, and we have 6 of them on the shelf right now," said Duce.

He acknowledged the district is using seven different helmets with ratings ranging from five stars to two stars. Duce said that's because not every student has the same head, and it's both coaches and trainers who fit the student athlete with the helmet that best fits them. But those different helmets mean different safety ratings.

"The one with the 2 star helmet for the same impact could actually get injured a lot more severely than the one wearing a better 5 star helmet so again
it's a risk issue," said Valerdi.

And it's a risk some parents do not want to take.

"Hopefully the school takes a look at that and maybe get those 5 star rating helmets just to prevent all the concussions," said Gregory Sanford, parent at Buena High School.

"And they should really phase out what they can now," said Schute.

Keep in mind, the Virginia Tech Football Helmet Ratings is an independent study. The N4T Investigators found the highest rated helmets aren't necessarily the most expensive. We've broken down the helmets districts and schools use, along with the ratings.

Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings

If you have a story for the N4T Investigators, email investigators@kvoa.com or call the tipline 520-955-4444.

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