WKYT Investigates: 5 schools with less than 'good' football helmets

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - A month-long WKYT investigation discovered five high schools in central, southern and eastern Kentucky with football helmets deemed less than “good” by a rating system to denote their ability to reduce the risk of concussions.

Through a series of tests, a professor at Virginia Tech University evaluated 26 adult football helmet models and assigned them star ratings.

"It's not rocket science. The better helmets have more padding and reduce head acceleration," Virginia Tech professor Dr. Stefan Duma, an expert at acceleration, told WKYT’s Miranda Combs.

Dr. Duma and his team came up with the first rating system for football helmets in 2011. Helmets with more stars provide a reduction in concussion risk compared to helmets with less stars.

Before 2011, there was just a pass/fail system for adult helmets.

"One of the main things we try to tell people is that the difference between the bad and the good helmet is dramatic,” Dr. Duma said. “Do you want one that barely passes or the one that passes by a lot?"

In the star system developed by Virginia Tech, five stars goes to the helmet best capable of taking a hit, four stars means a very good rating, three stars is a 'good' rating, two stars is an adequate helmet, and one star is marginal. There is also a not recommended category.

"So not recommended, one star, two star, these are the helmets we want people to get out of," said Dr. Duma.

WKYT contacted every school system in central, southern, and eastern Kentucky and found five high schools with helmets rated below three stars meaning they are considered either adequate or marginal.

Scott County had the highest percentage of what Dr. Duma considers unacceptable helmets. Out of 145 helmets the district uses, 81 received a two-star rating.

“Schedules for maintenance and upkeep on all football helmets currently exceed state mandates and include the yearly safety evaluation and reconditioning of all helmets,” Scott County Superintendent Patricia Putty said in a statement after she and the high school’s athletic director declined WKYT’s requests for interviews. “In our district, we strive to stay abreast of new research and initiatives to ensure student safety. Currently, we are reviewing the specifications of the newly released Virginia Tech-Wake Forest study as well as similar bodies of research related to quality assurance standards for football helmets.”

In the statement, Scott County administrators say they plan to use the Virginia Tech research as basis for new helmet selections.

The other school systems responding to WKYT’s request for helmet information and having the one or two star helmets, there were far fewer being used among their players. Lexington’s Dunbar, Tates Creek, and Bryan Station high schools along with Rowan County each had between one and six of the helmets with less than three stars.

While school districts across the state are strapped for cash and helmets can range from $150 to $375 each, Dr. Duma said that's not an excuse to buy a lower rated helmet. "That was one of the dramatic things. That not only is there a big difference in performance but also cost. And it's not related."

Despite filing the requests for helmet information under Kentucky’s law regarding open records to public information, officials in Clark County didn’t respond with any information. In Jessamine and Madison counties, information was provided to WKYT for only one of the each county’s two high schools.

"Head-to-head contact in 2014 is now considered an undisciplined play," former University of Kentucky quarterback Freddie Maggard told WKYT admitting he took some big hits 25 years ago. "When I played, it was considered a good football play."

The Virginia Tech rating system is based on ten years of research where football players’ helmets were instrumented with accelerometers, sensors that measure acceleration. Professors used the data to determine how frequently, where on the helmet, and how hard football players’ helmets were impacted. Information was then correlated to drop tests and weighted appropriately to reflect head impacts that players typically experience, according to Virginia Tech.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, concussions are a type of traumatic brain injury with young children and teens more likely to get them and take longer to recover than adults.

"I always wanted to play football," Lexington-native Dylan Lancaster told WKYT. "My dad put me in pads when I was five years old."

While playing for Lexington Christian Academy, several college football programs were interested in his football future. But the game came to an abrupt end for Lancaster after receiving four separate hits to the head.

"The back of my head is where all four of my concussions have been," Lancaster said about the injuries that ended his college-playing dreams.

Coaches and trainers are more educated and aware of the signs of a head trauma which Lancaster admits he ignored the signs. "I didn't tell my trainer. I didn't tell my doctor and now I'm never allowed to play again," Lancaster said.

It turned out that Centre College which wanted Lancaster for his running back abilities also wanted him for his character. "As soon as I told the coach that I couldn't play he said, 'Do you want to be a student coach?

Click here to download the school-by-school list of helmets and ratings.

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