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The Facts About Football Helmets

Updated on December 12, 2015
Helmet testing has made great strides since 1912.
Helmet testing has made great strides since 1912. | Source
Leather Helmet
Leather Helmet | Source
Riddell 360 Helmet
Riddell 360 Helmet | Source
Xenith X2 Helmet
Xenith X2 Helmet | Source

Helmets Through the Years

Helmets and helmet design has changed in look, style, and feel over its long history. From the early days of leather caps to the current Riddell 360 or Xenith X2. With the increased concussion awareness and their long term effects, many companies and researchers are trying to develop a safer football helmet.

While no helmet will ever prevent concussion 100% there are some helmets that are better than others. So, what does the research say when it comes to football helmets and concussions? Which helmets are the best? Which are the worst?

Low Force Impacts and Youth Football

In January of 2012 the Journal of Neurosurgery published an article comparing leather helmets to modern football helmets. The authors noted that little research has been done with hits of less than 75 times the force of gravity (Fg), in a laboratory environment. Currently, there are no standards for youth helmets. The youth helmets are smaller versions of the adult helmets. Since approximately three million youths participate in tackle football, this study could have significant implications for youth football.

This study looked at all eleven available models (up to 2012) and two vintage leather helmets. These helmets were then struck at the high end of impact collisions at the high school and college levels.

Surprising Results

One of the more unique results shows that the leather helmets presented the same injury risk as the adult helmets. In some cases the leather helmets performed better than some adult helmets. This result should cause you to think carefully when examining a helmet that claims to lower risks of concussion by X percent.

One of the main reasons the leather helmets performed so well when comparing them to new helmets, may be due to the way the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) have been developed. The standards are based on NFL level hits which are several times higher than college and high school. The lining in the helmets is too stiff for the lower level athletes and rather than absorbing the force it transmits it.

Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings (TM)

Annually, the Virginia Tech - Wake Forest School of biomedical Engineering and Sciences publish adult football helmet ratings. This year the study published information on 23 different helmets available for purchase. They rate the helmets using a mathematical equation called the STAR (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk) equation. This equation takes into account such factors as the location of the impact, the height the helmet was dropped, and acceleration. For the mathematically inclined click here to see the full details of the equation.

"The STAR value represents a Generalized Concussion Incidence. In other words, the STAR value is the number of concussion one player may experience through the duration of playing on complete season with a specific helmet." Virginia Tech - Wake Forest

When looking at the results of the tests, a helmet with a lower STAR value receives more stars. An example is the Schutt AiR XP Pro VTD has a STAR value of 0.207 and receives a 5 star rating. Conversely the Adams A2000 Pro Elite has a STAR value of 1.700 and a rating of Not Recommended.

SG Adult
SG Adult | Source
Schutt AiR XP Pro VTD
Schutt AiR XP Pro VTD | Source

Which is the Best?

Many people ask. "What's the best helmet?"

First, no matter what helmet you or your child wears if they do not use proper techniques, the likelihood of a concussion or neck injury greatly increases.

Second, just because the helmet is more expensive it does not mean it is better or safer.

Looking at the prices, one might consider the SG Adult the safest helmet because it is $398.00. More money means they put more effort in the research and better materials, right? Not necessarily! The SG Adult has a STAR value of 0.309 and 4 stars.

One of the cheapest helmets, Schutt AiR XP Pro VTD, rated the best with a STAR value of 0.207 and a 5 star rating. This helmet rated 67% better than the SG Adult and is $100 cheaper. A cheaper cost doesn't necessarily mean the helmet is a cheaper quality.

A full list of the 23 helmets can be found here.

Fitting a Helmet Properly

The following are the guidelines published by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Helmet fitting takes time. While every school does it somewhat different, it should be done in an atmosphere where the player and the individual responsible for fitting can concentrate on the details of the fit. It should not only be an exercise in safety, but an educational experience also (e.g., read the warning label to them and tell them how important it is for them to tell a coach if their helmet is not fitting properly).

  1. All helmets should be laid out according to size. Most of your helmets will be sized M, L, XL and thus should be arranged in three different areas accordingly. Various sized jaw pads should be grouped to accommodate rapid change. Helmet adjustment pads should also be available.
  2. The fitting room should be set up so that the player bing fit, the person fitting and no more than 2 on-deck players be present at one time. Because of the height of many players fitting is easier and more exact with the player seated on a stool.
  3. Urge players to maintain a moderate to short hairstyle during the season. Changes in hair length call for a new evaluation of the fit.
  4. Players should dampen their hair to approximate their sweat conditions. Towel off excess water.
  5. Each player should be measured with a measuring tape (or caliper) at 1” above eyebrows to determine head size. This will provide the basis for selecting the helmet (M, L, XL) which will fit each player best. (NOTE: If an athlete is between shell sizes, call your Riddell representative and he can provide you with a fitted helmet specifically for that player.)

How The Helmet Should Fit:

  1. The front of the helmet should sit one inch above the eyebrow. This is the point at which you can encompass the largest head mass. When pressing down with the fingers interlocked on top of the helmet, the pressure should be on the crown of the head and not on the brow. This is considered a good crown adjustment and should provide good visibility.
  2. The chin strap should be exactly centered and without slack to anchor the helmet properly. The helmet should feel comfortable and snug. The skin of the forehead should move with the sweatband as the helmet moves laterally.
  3. The jaw pads should feel firm against the face.
  4. The suspension should provide firm contact with the maximum amount of head mass and the posterior rim of the shell should cover the brain stem area.
  5. The various components of a good fit must be maintained during play.

A helmet that does not fit properly is significantly at protecting the head and brain from injury.

Heads Up Tackling


Closing Thoughts

As a healthcare provider, I implore all coaches, parents, equipment managers, and anyone involved in football helmet purchasing and safety to read the information provided by Virginia Tech - Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. While we can never prevent 100% of concussions we can do our best to prevent a majority of them. The annual report is very readable and comprehensive.

Coaches, especially volunteer youth coaches, need to keep up with the current teachings in football. This means teaching the athletes to tackle with their heads up. Not only will this help prevent concussion but will also prevent serious cervical neck injuries.

Work Cited

Bartsch, A., Benzel, E., Miele, V., & Prakash, V. (2012). Impact test comparisons of 20th and 21st century American football helmets. Journal of Neurosurgery, 116(1), 222-233.

Rowson, S., Duma, S., Greenwald, R., Beckwith, J., Chu J., Guskiewicz, K., Mihalik, J., Crisco, J., Wilcox, B., McAllister, T., Maerlender, A., Broglio, S., Schnebel, B., Anderson, S., Brolinson, P. (2014). Can helmet design reduce the risk of concussion in football?. Journal of Neurosurgery, Online, Accessed March, 3rd, 2014., 1-4.

Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. (2014, May 1). Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. Retrieved May 26, 2014, from


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    • JMac778 profile imageAUTHOR

      Trainer Joe 

      2 years ago from Indiana


      In terms of preventing concussion, the leather helmets perform nearly identical to the modern helmets. Terrifying right? But, the modern helmets leave the leather helmets in the when you look at the things they are designed to prevent. Some examples are skull fractures, facial fractures, lacerations, and other facial/head injuries. Up until recent history concussion weren't viewed as a serious injury like they are today.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Am I reading you right that some tests show that leather helmets may perform as well as modern helmets? When I played high school football, our coach would talk about strapping leather on our heads. We took it as a joke. Maybe he was more right than he knew.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Yes to what you said about the new Schutt, but they made that for low impact hits so they could test better on the star rating, but I believe even the people at Schutt would rather you use the old 3 star model for the higher impact ratings. I'm glad VT is doing something, but I believe it's not totally accurate.


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