BOISE -- In recent years, the relationship between playing football and concussions has been a huge sports story. Some scientists say the risk of getting a concussion on the field could be reduced by choosing certain football helmets.
For the last few years, researchers from Virginia Tech and Wake Forest University have rated professional-grade football helmets, which high school and college athletes use.
The research and ratings system the scientists developed go beyond the national pass-fail tests every helmet in high school and college play would have a sticker certifying. Those tests, by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), have been around since 1973.
From 1 to 5-stars, Virginia Tech ranks football helmets
Now, the Virginia Tech researchers say their method using acceleration tests can show how much certain helmets can reduce force on a player's head.
"NOCSAE will tell you all helmets are the same under their standard, and we say that's not true, that the differences are dramatic," said Dr. Stefan Duma, Virginia Tech Center for Injury Biomechanics.
The ratings system is on a 5-star scale, with five being the best and one being the worst. The ratings equate to "best available" (5-star), "very good" (4-star), "good" (3-star), "adequate" (2-star), "marginal" (1-star), and "not recommended" (no stars awarded).
Since 2003, Duma and others placed sensors in helmets to learn about the type of impacts football players encounter on the field. Then, they took the measurements and recreated the scenarios on 18 helmets to look at acceleration changes.
"Acceleration is what affects the mass of the brain, and the higher you accelerate it, the more the mass lags, and that's when you start to stretch it and get injuries," Duma said.
Researchers: Top-rated helmets can drastically cut G-force impact to head
The researchers measure impact in terms of G-force measurements of acceleration. At rest, Duma says people face around 1G; doing jumping jacks puts people around 5Gs.
"When we talk about football helmet, impacts that are around concussion level, that's around 100Gs. So you go all the way from a 5G jumping jack to a 100G is about the impact that we see concussions," Duma said.
When Duma and other scientists test the helmets, they slam them into a hard surface in different ways equivalent to what players may experience in a game. The better a helmet does reducing acceleration, the better star rating it gets. Duma says the difference between helmets, according to his research, can be huge.
"The difference in acceleration is dramatic between the one star and the very good 4 and 5-stars," Duma said. "To put numbers on that, I can take for one drop test a 1-star helmet, and I'll get 150Gs. Replace that with a 5-star helmet, I can cut that in half to 75Gs. Our fundamental point is there is a huge difference between 150Gs and 75Gs."
Alabama teen sues helmet manufacturer after traumatic injury
"Tim makes a big tackle on a young man who was running the ball, and he didn't get up. I saw him moving, but he didn't get up," Evelyn McGhee, Timothy Robinson's mother, recalled.
A few years ago, Alabama high school football player Timothy's life changed forever when he went for a hit and suffered a severe brain injury during his school's homecoming game.
"I remember running down those bleachers, those stairs, in a panic. Trying to get there," McGhee said. "All I could say was God don't take my son."
His head injury left Timothy wheelchair bound and he can barely speak. Robinson's family sued Schutt, which manufactured the helmet Timothy wore that night. The company settled.
"I think it was due to the liability and with the number of injuries that may have happened due to the helmets," McGhee said.
Timothy's helmet was a Schutt Air Advantage, which Virginia Tech rates at 2-stars, or in the "adequate" category.
5-star rating system has critics in the research community
While it may seem obvious to simply outfit every high school and college football player with a 5-star helmet, there are more factors to consider. In fact, there are critics that say the ratings don't equate to reduced risk at all.
"The merits of the science are actually reasonable. The merits of the conclusion are, in my opinion, unreasonable," said David Halstead, Southern Impact Research Center, Knoxville.
Halstead says while certain types of impact are researched, some of the other factors, like different head placement during a hit, can't and aren't being fully considered.
"Where I find that there's a problem, is where they say, 'This helmet is a 5-star rating and will result in fewer concussions than this helmet is a 4-star,' there is zero science to support that. And it is a leap of faith that I think is premature," Halstead said.
How to check your player's helmet
Where there is agreement across the board is more information about concussions and how they happen is critical. Timothy's mother says she wished she'd have known more earlier, and she believes a better rated helmet could make a difference.
"For me, I don't think enough is being done. I think there is more that can be done. For me as a parent, I know more now about helmets than I did then," McGhee said. "I didn't ask the questions, and I knew better. I should have checked the safety of the helmet."
Click here to see a chart of the helmets tested by Virginia Tech. This poster is from the NFL, which says it posts the information in every locker room.
On Wednesday night at 10:00, KTVB will further examine this issue with a direct look at what helmets Idaho's high schools are using. Additionally, a head football coach (who's also an athletic trainer), local helmet dealer and concussion doctor will give their perspectives on the ratings and what parents can look for.