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Researchers release youth football helmet safety ratings

Parents concerned about their children’s safety while playing youth football can now be more proactive: Virginia Tech has started a youth football helmet rating.

Such ratings already exist for high school and adult helmets, but not for youth players, who are the majority of people who play the sport in the United States, researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University said Wednesday in a statement.

The youth ratings are necessary because “kids aren’t just scaled-down adults,” said Steve Rowson, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics and director at the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, which released the ratings. “Their heads are larger relative to their necks, their necks are weaker, and their brains are still developing.”

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The safety of football came into question after research found a connection between the repeated hits to the head that occur during the game and the degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.

For example, when Boston University researchers studied the donated brains of deceased football players, they found that nearly all the brains of the National Football League players had CTE. But the brains were donated because relatives had concerns about their late family members’ symptoms, so the findings do not reveal CTE’s prevalence among all football players.

A subsequent study by the BU group found that repeated hits to the head can be especially harmful to developing brains. Playing tackle football before age 12 was associated with earlier onset of cognitive and emotional symptoms.

Rowson said minimizing concussions in sports is crucial — and making helmets safer is only part of what’s needed.

“You’ll see the greatest improvement by making data-driven changes to rules, practice structures, and player behavior that reduce the number of head impacts in the first place,” Rowson said. “But some residual number of incidental head impacts are inevitable, and in those cases, having the very best protection will reduce the risk of injury.”

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Virginia Tech Helmet Lab’s ratings reviewed every single youth football helmet on the market. Only seven helmet models received five stars — the highest one could get — while every other one received three or four stars. Every single company reviewed had at least one helmet model that received five stars.

The results: Schutt had the highest amount of helmets receiving five stars, with three helmets getting that designation. Xenith had two receiving five stars and VICIS and Riddell had one each receiving that rating.

In order to figure out which rating to give which helmet, the lab performed 48 tests on a dummy modeled after the average boy between 10 and 12 years old. A helmet was placed on the dummy to measure acceleration in four different impact locations at three different impact velocities. Sensors in the helmet measured the effects.

If the helmet reduced acceleration during the impact, it received a higher score. If it didn’t, it received a lower score, researchers said. Those with lower scores tended to have front pads in the helmet that were too stiff, Rowson said.

“The front location is where kids hit their head the most, and at high energies, so that front pad plays a big role,” Rowson said. “The lower-rated helmets would test considerably better simply by reducing the stiffness of that front padding.”

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In a multiuniversity ongoing study, the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab has been looking at the effect of head impacts in youth football, the statement said. Through this, Rowson and his team have been able to analyze where and how hard the impacts are, enabling them to combine that data in order to create these new ratings.

“At this point, we have a pretty good idea of how youth players impact their helmets, and which impacts are most likely to result in concussion,” Rowson said. “We were able to take that information from the field and replicate those impacts in the lab, so that we were evaluating the helmets under realistic conditions that are relevant to youth players.”

The research team is working on how to develop a similar protocol for other youth sports helmets.


Breanne Kovatch can be reached at breanne.kovatch@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @breannekovatch.