TWIN FALLS -- To find out what type of football helmets Idaho's high school athletes are playing with, KTVB requested purchase orders and inventories from 20 teams.
On Tuesday, KTVB examined research out of Virginia Tech that claims some helmets are better than others at reducing risk for concussion and ranks different models 1 to 5-stars.
Researchers from Virginia Tech and Wake Forest University test football helmets by slamming them into a surface based on force data obtained by placing sensors in players' helmets for more than a decade.
"The difference in acceleration is dramatic between the 1-star and the very good 4 and 5-stars," said Dr. Stefan Duma, Virginia Tech researcher.
Check the helmets your school uses
Of those Idaho schools that responded completely, we found at least four of the schools have some 2-star helmets in inventory. Borah High School, Capital High School, Nampa High School, and Timberline High School each have a handful in their stock of dozens of helmets.
None of the schools sampled had any helmets rated less than 2-stars. Part of the explanation may be the only two helmets rated 1 or 2-stars in Virginia Tech's ratings are no longer manufactured (the 2-star Schutt Air Advantage and 1-star Riddell VSR4).
More than half of the schools surveyed only have 3-star and above helmets, so all of those rank in the "Good", "Very Good" or "Best Available" categories. For example, all the schools in Caldwell, Fruitland and Twin Falls, use 3-stars and up.
Use the interactive map below (unavailable on mobile) to see the types of helmets 18 high schools have in inventory. If available, the number of each helmet type is provided. A few schools have a small number of helmets that aren't rated by Virginia Tech.
Coach: Ratings are interesting, but fit and other factors perhaps more important
Schools generally purchase helmets yearly, rotating out stock as they can afford to do. Sometimes that means an upgrade with ratings in mind.
"That's kind of the gold standard out there, and we look. We'd love to put all our kids in 5-star helmets, but your budgets and stuff don't always allow you to do that," said Allyn Reynolds, Twin Falls Head Coach and Certified Athletic Trainer. "But I think we put our kids in the best equipment that we can afford."
The professional-grade helmets used by high schoolers tend to cost between $200 and $400 each. The cost of helmets doesn't have a correlation to the star-ratings, according to numbers provided by Virginia Tech.
The ratings have been very controversial in the science and sports communities. Reynolds says he likes what the researchers are attempting to show, but he says there's much more to helmet safety, like looking at fit, making sure helmets are properly aired up, and thinking about who's wearing the helmet.
"We buy our best helmets and put them on our guys that have had some past issues with head injuries and concussions. That's who's going to wear our best helmets," Reynolds said.
Coach: Smaller pads, 'better' helmets may be encouraging athletes to hit head-first
Helmets aside, Reynolds says it's really some other changes he's seen in the game and other gear that have him most concerned about concussions.
"It's a bigger game. It's a faster game. There's more speed, and there's higher impact," Reynolds said.
He explains while helmet technology has undoubtedly improved over the years, pads are being designed sleeker and smaller, possibly encouraging more head contact.
"Years ago, you had those big pair of shoulder pads, the jerseys allowed the shoulder pads to stay big, and there was just more surface area to bring someone down," Reynolds said. "[Newer and sleeker uniforms] decrease the amount of surface area that the tackler, or in a lot of cases the blocker, can put on the opponent. I feel like because the surface area is reduced, sometimes the kid just to bring someone down has to slide more of the middle of their body to their opponent, which then involves the head."
Reynolds says he sees high school athletes tempted to use the most damaging and hardest piece of equipment they have left: Their helmet, which they may know has a good star rating.
"You put on a nice helmet, it's a 5-star rating, and the kid knows that. They all of a sudden become invincible, and you've got to battle that. You've got to say, 'No, your head is not to ram into someone else's body. You gotta put it to the side,'" Reynolds said. "I think our coaches understand it. Now it's getting our kids to understand you're not invincible even though you have a really nice helmet on your head."
Concussion doctor: Virginia Tech rankings may be missing some factors
Dr. Kurt Nilsson is the Medical Director of St. Luke's Concussion Clinic. In his opinion, the research doesn't cover all possibilities and concussion risks.
"A lot of concussions happen from rotational forces that can't be tested in a lab. So that's one of the things that the ratings do miss. So you are absolutely still at risk for a concussion even if you do have a 5-star helmet on," Nilsson said.
Even so, when asked what parents and coaches should look for, he says a better-rated helmet is absolutely a good idea.
"I think if you can have a better-rated helmet, I do think that's an important thing. I think as important as that is having the right fit and making sure those helmets are inspected and reconditioned on a regular basis," Nilsson said.
Idaho Sporting Goods inspects helmets for reconditioning
Idaho Sporting Goods sells helmets to around 200 schools in the region and offers reconditioning services. Co-owner Pat Brady says they check all clients' helmets every 2 or 3 years, inside and out.
"We're looking at how old they are, to start with. Then visibly we look for any cracks or gauges in the shell. If there's a crack, we reject it on site," Brady said.
If the helmets need fixes, and are less than 10-years-old, they can be sent to California for reconditioning.
"Basically they go through, clean them, sanitize them, buff them out and make sure the parts, everything's good," Brady said.
His take on the Virginia Tech ratings? "As far as the test goes, it's very controversial," Brady said.
Even so, he says coaches are asking about the ratings. The most popular helmet sold out of Idaho Sporting Goods now is the Schutt Vengeance, which is a 4-star helmet. The most popular used to be 3-star rated models.
Coach and doctor: No helmet is 'concussion-proof'
So while there is agreement that the ratings are something to at least look into and consider, many say there's much, much more to football safety and more work to be done.
"I think we're in an unrealistic world to think we're going to eliminate them, eliminate concussions, we're not going to. It's the nature of the beast. But I think we can do a lot more to minimize long-term effects. That's where we're lacking right now," Coach Reynolds said.
"I think there are a lot of factors surrounding all the issues around concussion," Dr. Nilsson said. "Being in good shape, knowing what position you're playing, knowing how you're playing, making sure your neck is strong, making sure you're aware of where you are. There are all these things that lead to concussion, and a helmet is sort of the last line of defense for you."
Bottom line: Both say there's more to concussion prevention than a helmet.
"Helmets don't prevent all concussions. Even the best helmet in the world the size of a beer cooler will not prevent a concussion if all the forces are right," Nilsson said.
Know the symptoms of a concussion
In addition to knowing about your kids' gear for any sport, trainers and physical therapists say you should know about concussions and when to talk to a doctor or coach. Symptoms include sleeping more than normal, intense headaches and mood swings. These things often come on quickly and should be questioned, especially if they've taken a hit recently.
Click here for more concussion resources for athletes and parents from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Thursday during the News at 4:00, Schutt's President and CEO will respond to the rating system and give his take on how to look at safety in any sport.
The following chart is what the NFL says it posts in locker rooms to tell players about helmet ratings. Click here for a PDF version to save or print.