The Truth About the Safety Ratings That Sell Football Helmets

From Bloomberg

More than 30 football helmets line the shelves in Robert Erb’s office at Schutt Sports in Litchfield, Ill., from a late-1920s leather version to a white-and-orange University of Tennessee model once worn by Peyton Manning. Tucked in among them are books and binders with titles including Neurologic Athletic Head and Spine Injuries and Concussions and Our Kids.

It’s fitting. Since Erb took over seven years ago as president and chief executive officer of privately held Schutt, the nation’s No. 2 maker of football helmets, the most important factor influencing the manufacture and marketing of helmets has become not paint, padding, or polycarbonates, but concussions—and how to minimize the chances of a player suffering one.

Erb, a voluble 55-year-old built like a 1960s NFL lineman, confronts this reality with the subtlety of a pulling guard pancaking a cornerback. “Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a hypothesis,” he says, referring to the brain affliction that has been linked to concussions.

Concussions might result mainly from whacks to the head, or they might not. “Nobody knows,” he says. “Could it be related to steroids? Weightlifting? What about genetics? Did the guy see the hit coming? Did he get enough sleep the night before?” He points at half a dozen decades-old helmets on his credenza. “There’s no evidence of CTE back then.”

But nothing about helmets and concussions gets Erb more exercised than Virginia Tech University, which has become the de facto arbiter of helmet safety. For the past four years, researchers at the home of the Hokies—alma mater of Michael Vick—have ranked football helmets on their ability to reduce concussion risk. The school’s STAR rating system assigns numerical values indicating helmets’ ability to absorb impacts. Helmets are then ranked from best to worst and grouped into categories labeled by stars: Five stars indicate the most protection, one star the least.

Erb says the ratings oversimplify the science of concussions. Although his company has produced two of Virginia Tech’s top-rated helmets, Erb says, “These ratings are misleading people. People are now using them to determine which helmets to put their youth leagues into, which is truly insane.”

Posters displaying the STAR ratings hang in NFL locker rooms. Sales of five-star helmets have soared. Virginia Tech’s rankings are so popular with parents of youth and high school players that some school administrators won’t consider buying anything but five-stars. “It’s evolved into that—it was never intended to be that,” says Stefan Duma, the professor who helped create the ratings and oversees them as head of Virginia Tech’s School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences.

In his campus lab, Duma also is surrounded by helmets of many shapes and makes. He says the STAR rankings have prodded helmet makers to design safer helmets in the same way that the federal government’s safety ratings for cars and trucks forced automakers to make safer cars.

He slaps the crown of an old A2000 Pro Elite made by Adams, a company whose helmet sales suffered in part because of poor grades from Virginia Tech. “The No. 1 message we’re trying to send is for people to get rid of those old helmets,” Duma says. “We’re proud because we’ve made that happen.”

Like boxing and smoking, football is almost impossible to do safely. It’s long been known how the sport ravages limbs. As for helmets, for decades the focus was on preventing skull fractures and spinal injuries. In 1973 the newly formed National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment adopted a test to measure G-forces inflicted on a helmet dropped from different heights onto a hard rubber pad. NOCSAE certified helmets that passed the test without ranking them in any particular order. Catastrophic skull and spinal injuries virtually disappeared, though concussions weren’t a consideration.

That changed in the 2000s as NFL and college players grew more concerned about concussions’ potential links to later-life memory loss and other brain trauma. A series of New York Times stories in 2010 raised the issue’s profile even as helmet makers themselves were drawing attention to it with assertions about their products’ anti-concussion properties. In April 2013, Riddell, Xenith, and Schutt agreed to stop making such claims as part of a Federal Trade Commission investigation into allegations of false advertising. (The manufacturers did not admit wrongdoing.) Two high school players died after blows to the head early last fall; last year a Maryland county judge refused to dismiss all claims against Schutt in a case brought by the parents of a college player who died of head injuries. (The case is still pending.) Even legendary NFL tough guy Mike Ditka recently said football is too dangerous for children to play.


Firm’s high-tech gear battles concussions

By Brain Sharp

As the two boys sparred inside the Aquinas Institute gymnasium, Dave Robertson watched ringside, offering encouragement and coaching to his son: “Get out of the corner! Keep your hands up!”

His son, 15-year-old Mike Robertson, is a third-year boxer at Aquinas Institute, which claims to have the only in-house high school boxing program in the country.

This week, young Robertson and most of his teammates were fitted with high-tech headbands, equipped with sensors that help coaches, trainers and parents evaluate the blows students receive each time they step in the ring. The Linx IAS, a product of Rochester-based BlackBox Biometrics, is one of many such wearable technologies flooding the market.

The sophisticated technology is another tool for helping protect athletes and refine their training — highlighting, for example, which boxers take the most hits to the head, and thus need to work on keeping their hands up. But when it comes to integrating technology, sport and health science, gaps remain.

“We are still, as a scientific field, trying to establish a relationship between hits to the head and something bad to the brain,” said Dr. Jeffrey Bazarian, who has served as an adviser to BlackBox and is an emergency medicine professor with a concussion and research program at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“It is tempting to think about this like cigarette smoking (increasing the risk of lung cancer). … But it’s not a one-to-one relationship. It gets complicated,” he said. “I don’t think anybody knows how this information is supposed to be used.”

Lightweight and about the size of a stick of gum, the Linx Impact Assessment System can be slipped into a custom headband or skullcap to be worn with almost any sport. Other companies are marketing clips, patches and helmet inserts.

The technology can help coaches coach better, and medical professionals assess an athlete’s condition. But Linx IAS and these other sensors are not medical devices and cannot prevent concussions.

Beyond tallying the number and magnitude of blows, the sensors record head movement to show where and how each hit is absorbed. Data is relayed in real time to a smartphone or tablet app. With the Linx, each blow is measured in degree of force from 1 to 100, color-coded (green is low impact, yellow is medium, and red is high), tabulated and tracked by individual across sports and over time. In addition to big hits, there is concern about the cumulative effect of repeated hits.


New Technology to Manage Potential Head Injuries

By Alex Crichton

It’s estimated that as many as 3.8-million Americans experience concussive events as a result of athletic or recreational activities each year.

Now, new technology from a Rochester company can alert people ahead of time and possibly prevent head injuries.

It’s called the Linx Impact Assessment System, developed by BlackBox Biometrics, a company that evolved from an incubator at RIT

Company founder David Borkholder says the wearable technology, helps evaluate potentially concussive forces on the playing field.

A sensor fits into a headband or skull cap, and through an app, allows parents, coaches and athletic trainers to monitor how hard and how many times an athlete is hit playing sports.

Borkholder says its designed to help make better choices for athletes, and it can also be used to fine-tune techniques to help reduce the level of impact during play.

He says it’s not measuring injury but the forces experienced by the athlete.

Borkholder says concussions can’t be prevented, but this new technology can alert people to the severity of impacts athletes are encountering on the playing field.

He says they’re hopeful this technology will make sports safer for athletes of all ages.

It’s expected the product will be launched by the end of March.

New Technology to Manage Potential Head Injuries |

Linx IAS featured on

By Ben Radding

The other device I saw that stuck out to me was the Linx IAS sports impact monitoring system from appropriately named BlackBox Biometrics. Relevant now more than ever with the controversy surrounding how the NFL deals with concussions, the Linx IAS is a device—not larger than a USB drive—that you put into a skullcap and, using a 3-axis accelerometer and 3-axis gyroscope, can detect how hard you collide with another player. The accompanying app gives info on a smartphone or tablet with a color-coding system—green means you’re fine, yellow is to check for a concussion, and red… well, who needs a working brain?

Originally used by the military for about five years to test for signs of concussion after, say, IED blasts or artillery training, they’ve slimmed down the device so it fits under a helmet—though a helmet’s not necessary. They had it on a test dummy named Bob, and no matter how hard I hit him, I couldn’t seem to give Bob a concussion. The nice folks at the booth assured me that he’s tougher than he looks.

For mass production, this will be for a mother who wants to track her son’s collisions during a middle school football match in real time, along with coaches. The big-picture use is if they can get enough football players or active members of the military wearing them, then they have a large sample of data to do studies on and draw conclusions from. Here’s hoping.

BlackBox Biometrics Linx IAS |