EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) - A three-month long investigation by KTSM looked into football helmet safety in area public high schools.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, KTSM obtained information from nine area school districts, 34 schools in all. The results of the investigation revealed that 13 high schools appear to be dressing out their students with helmets that are poorly rated using a six-year rating and helmet study at Virginia Tech.
Friday nights in the State of Texas are known for high school football. The Boys of Fall feel invincible, but play after play and hit after hit, the invisible toll takes an effect on student athletes’ bodies.
“I thought the helmet protected me the way it was supposed to,” said Ed Stansbury, NBC9 Overtime expert analyst. Stansbury played football at Irvin High School, UCLA and three seasons in the NFL. “Whatever the coaches provided for me, that’s what I put on my head,” Stansbury explained. “Back when I was in middle school and high school, it was one helmet for the entire team. You go with that or you don’t play.”
Over the course of his football career, he says he suffered countless concussions. As an adult, he said he’s paying for those repetitive hits.
“Things aren't coming to me as fast,” he said. “Even doing the show on Fridays, I find myself drawing blanks a lot more than I ever had to deal with. I have headaches pretty often, mood swings. I'm ten-plus years removed from football and I'm really starting to see those symptoms and feel the effects of all those concussions, all those head on collisions.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a concussion occurs when the head is knocked so hard, the brain hits against the skull causing nerves inside the brain to tear.
Since 2011, researchers at Virginia Tech have tackled the issue of football helmet safety in players. They drop, pound and destroy helmets to assign them to a 5-star rating.
“We've taken each one (helmet) and cut it in half and you can see the very different technologies that companies use, from a foam to a buckling type system,” said Dr. Stefan Duma, Virginia Tech’s College of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences.
Virginia Tech researchers rate the helmets one-to-five. Five star helmets are best at lowering head acceleration and most likely to prevent a concussion. Five-star helmets also have an added benefit; cost.
“One of the interesting findings was cost was not related to performance,” said Dr. Duma. “Some of the most expensive helmets were the worst performing. Some of the least expensive helmets were the best performing.”
Through the Freedom of Information Act, KTSM requested helmet inventories for Borderland high school football programs. The results revealed not every high school is using the safest helmets. Nearly 40% of schools in the El Paso area are using a one-star rated helmet, the Riddell VSR4. The VSR4 tested so poorly, Virginia Tech researchers said, “no athlete should be using this helmet.”
The open record documents provided by the El Paso Independent School District show seven of their ten high school helmet inventories contain the one-star rated VSR4 helmet. The documents show VSR4 helmets on the helmet lists for Austin, Bowie, Burges, Chapin, Coronado, Irvin and Jefferson. While EPISD had a number of schools on the list, other districts also had the VSR4 listed. Hanks, Horizon, Clint, Mountain View, Anthony and Santa Teresa High Schools have VSR4 helmets in use or available for student use.
“Football is a violent sport,” said Julio Lopez, head football coach at Eastwood High School. “It's my job as a coach to make sure that our kids from the senior varsity player who has been in the program for four years, down to the incoming freshman are fitted the right way, and have a quality helmet.”
Eastwood is the only high school program in the city using only five-star rated helmets. Lopez said he bases his helmet purchases off the Virginia Tech research.
KTSM reached out to EPISD’s athletic director, Maria Kennedy, after the results of the Open Records request showed so many of the district’s high schools using the VSR4 helmet. Kennedy was asked why, if cost is not a factor, a lower end helmet was on students’ heads. Kennedy said she was unaware of the Virginia Tech study.
“I will have more conversations with my coaches to say, 'Hey, what do we need to do?'” Kennedy said.
“If that helmet is out there and it is a 1-star helmet, then we need to address that now. We need to try to replace those if we can, get those all replaced,” she said. “If they're already close to the end of their shelf life anyway, then why not? Let's just get rid of them and not use them anymore.”
KTSM reached out to athletic directors in all school districts where they documented the VSR4 in their helmet inventories. Gadsden Independent School District did not respond to KTSM’s repeated requests for clarification. A few emailed statements, in some cases, telling KTSM that while they listed VSR4 helmets for their students, the helmets were not in use.
Meanwhile, Stansbury spends his time giving inspirational speeches to student athletes, some with NFL dreams of their own. He wants them to study hard and make safe decisions.
He hopes their coaches do the same.
“Hopefully with more of the research and science behind it, we can find a better solution to protect everybody.”