Should You Trust the Virginia Tech Football Helmet Ratings?

Explanation of the Virginia Tech STAR Rating for football helmets, and the benefits and objections to the study.

Concussions have always been a part of the game especially in football. But what was once referred to as simply “getting your bell rung,” has now become an incredibly serious health concern, leading to mental degeneration, persistent physical impairments, depression, and death. Concussions and Football helmets Among players, parents, and coaches, the growing fear of, and focus on concussions, their effects, and prevention have become priority number one, and for many, the first line of defense is the football helmet. Concussions are the result of a complicated event, with many variables, forces, and factors, ranging from the acceleration of the player to his genetics. Yet, at the end of the day, parents and players just want to find the best helmet to protect themselves from injuries. Unfortunately, consumers are really looking for a simple answer to a complex question.

Enter The STAR Rating System

After eight years of data collection, research, and experiments, in 2011, and again recently in 2012, Virginia Tech and their engineering department gave us an answer; the “STAR System” for rating the effectiveness of football helmets. Virginia Tech STAR helmet ratingSTAR, or the Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk, is a rating given to helmets, meant to describe their perceived effectiveness at reducing the risk of concussions. Each helmet is tested in an accredited lab, and using an algorithm developed by Stefan Dumma, lead engineer on the Virginia Tech rankings project, given a STAR value. According to Virginia Tech, this value is derived from 120 impacts on 3 new helmets, caused by dropping the helmet from a variety of heights, at four different positions, to simulate the range of helmet-to-helmet hits a player would experience on the field. After analyzing the results and data, the helmet is given a STAR rating, which attempts to define the number of concussions a player can expect to experience over the duration of one season, playing with that particular helmet.

2012 STAR Football Helmet Ratings

In 2012, Virginia Tech tested 15 adult large football helmet models using the STAR evaluation system. Helmets with higher STAR ratings provide a reduction in concussion risk, while those with lower ratings tend to provide less protection from concussions. Below are the published results of the 2012 STAR football helmet testing performed by Virginia Tech. Most of these helmets can be found at Sports Unlimited.  Please see the updated 2014 Virginia Tech Football Helmet Ratings.

5 Stars:
4 Stars:
3 Stars:
2 Stars:
1 Star:
NR:

Riddell 360

Rawlings Quantum Plus

Riddell Revolution Speed

Schutt Vengeance DCT*

Schutt ION 4D

Schutt DNA Pro +

Rawlings Impulse

Xenith X1

Riddell Revolution

Rawlings Quantum

Riddell Revolution IQ

Schutt AiR XP

Xenith X2

Schutt AiR Advantage

Riddell VSR4

AdamsA2000 Pro Elite

 

The Controversy Over Virginia Tech and STAR

Since it was first introduced into the industry in 2011, the Virginia Tech STAR rating for helmets has received both praise for informing players and parents of the effectiveness of certain helmets, and opposition from independent organizations like NOCSAE (the National Operation Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment) and manufacturers like Schutt and Xenith, accusing the study of dramatic limitations and misleading results. The controversy over the Virginia Tech football helmet study has grown heated in the past few weeks, following the publication of the 2012 results. Press releases and rebuttal statements from Schutt, NOCSAE, and engineers from Virginia Tech have cast the issue further into the public light, and have people questioning, at once, the validity of the STAR ratings, and the intentions of some of the most trusted manufacturers in the game today!

Objections to the Virginia Tech STAR Rating System

Opposition from Schutt, NOCSAE, and others center on the authority of the helmet rating system and Virginia Tech’s methodology in the lab. Since the testing only focuses on lateral acceleration impacts (direct helmet-to-helmet contact) and ignores rotational impacts (the glancing blows that twist the head and neck), many believe its results and data are severely limited. Virginia Tech football helmet test

“We believe the assumptions behind the study have been flawed from the start because it fails to acknowledge that current science has yet to pin down the actual injury mechanics that cause concussions.  The STAR rating system is limited in too many ways because it considers only linear force impacts and totally ignores many other factors that are involved in a concussive event.”

-Cortney Warmouth, Director of New Product Development, Schutt

Although respecting the tests and results as a leap forward in understanding the nature and prevention of concussions, NOCSAE and Schutt have both expressed concern that concussions are too complex an event to draw any strong conclusions by testing only one of many variables.

“NOCSAE does not recommend that parents and athletes form decisions on the safest and most effective equipment based on any single individual data point, rating, or measurement, including the Virginia Tech STAR football helmet rating system. Doing so may lead to inaccurate conclusions that one helmet brand or model has a measurably higher level of concussion protection than another for a particular athlete.”  

– Taken from NOCSAE press release

Schutt has taken their objections a step further, even though many of their helmets, such as the ION 4D and DNA Pro +, have received top STAR ratings in each test. Schutt’s objection to the Virginia Tech helmet study accuses it of prioritizing lower-velocity impacts over harder hits. In low speed impacts, softer helmet padding tends to perform better and absorb more shock, while at higher speeds, harder padding has been shown to protect players better. Typically, softer padded helmets are better at protecting younger players, who are generally not getting hit as hard as college or pro players. For instance, the Schutt 2012 AiR Standard II received a 5 STAR rating when tested by the same independent accredited lab, under the same conditions, and using the same algorithm used by Virginia Tech.

Schutt AiR Standard II 2012“While it passes the NOCSAE helmet standard, the 2012 AiR Standard II is an entry level helmet designed for younger players. The idea of putting such a helmet on a player at any high school, college or NFL team is absurd. The fact that it’s the best helmet in the STAR rating system should cause concern for anyone relying on the system for purchasing decisions.”  

– Robert Erb, President and CEO, Schutt Sports

In response to these accusations, the Virginia Tech team has admitted its limitations and explained that its STAR rating is merely meant as a research tool, not a buying guide. Their claim is that some information on the effectiveness of football helmets is better than nothing. Virginia Tech STAR Helmet RatingIn Virginia Tech’s helmet study methodology, the researchers directly describe the test’s limitations, admitting the complex, multi-faceted, and variable causes and nature of concussions. Admittedly, their numbers and rating system are simply based on trends and probabilities. While they also admit to only testing linear acceleration as well, the team explains that while all head impacts result in both linear and rotational accelerations, Virginia Tech engineers believe a correlation exists between the two forces. So, as they explore the one, they are also exploring the effects of the other. Obviously, this is a complicated issue, one based in science and sport, but also rooted in health and emotion. In our quest to provide the most well-rounded, up-to-date, and unbiased sporting goods information, we at Sports Unlimited have tried to present all of the facts and varying opinions on this developing issue. But to get the full picture, we need to hear from the people using this information and buying new helmets. So please, feel free to share your opinions and feelings on the Virginia Tech helmet ratings below! *Update: As it was not available for public purchase at the time, the Schutt Vengeance helmet was not tested in the VA Tech STAR Rating Study. However, using the same lab (Southern Impact Research Center in Rockford, TN) and publicly posted methods and algorithms as the VA Tech Study, Schutt independently tested the Vengeance, as well as others in its Varsity level helmet line. They found the Vengeance to score a STAR Value of 0.185. According to VA Tech’s publicly posted ratings, a 5-Star Helmet is rated between 0.200 – 0.299 STAR Value, while a 4-STAR helmet falls between 0.300 – 0.399 STAR Value. This would actually put the Vengeance above 5-STAR rated helmets. However, although their latest helmet is technically the highest rated, Schutt still believes the test to be inevitably flawed, and inaccurate of a helmet’s actual in-game performance and protection.

By Brandon Porter.Brandon is a product specialist at Sports Unlimited.

19 thoughts on “Should You Trust the Virginia Tech Football Helmet Ratings?”

  1. I realize the Virginia Tech study is an early step toward future helmet testing standardization, however, it is an extremely important one. Since the release of the 2012 data and the STAR rating system it is apparent the football industry is standing up and taking note. Perhaps now the manufactures will put more emphasis on R & D substance and less aesthetic gimmicks. Slightly flawed or not, I’m glad the results of this independent study are accessible to the general consumer.

    1. I definitely agree with you, in that I think the end result of this study, flawed or not, will be a more informed consumer and, in turn, a safer player. At SU, it’s our belief that there is no such thing as too much product or category information, and that an informed customer is a better one. That’s why we started this blog in the first place, and why I’ve been committed to creating easily accessible buying guides across every category in the store. The VA Tech helmet study may be flawed, as many lab tests and studies tend to be, and although I agree with Schutt that consumers shouldn’t solely base their helmet decision on the STAR ratings, I believe making consumers aware of the safety features of helmets and the effects of concussions can certainly do more good than harm in the industry and on the field.

  2. As a sister of 2 college football players & 2 high school players, 3 of which have had concussions- 1 included a tear & a severe bleed under the skull- its extremely important. The sever concussion with bleeding was just last fall, we’ve been in the market for the “Safest Helmet”. We’ve done ample research, & while all of my brothers are offensive-lineman they are helmet to helmet about 90% of the time. So this study is extremely helpful to us in our search for the quote-Safest Helmet. Furthermore, this information that you’ve provided better explains what exactly was tested, and for that I thank you.

  3. As a parent and physician, I believe some information is better than none. Virginia Tech has looked at concussions and helmet qualities in a scientific way. It has published the best data on available on helmet effectiviness. It is the best data available. I wonder if Schutt would have had the same objections if there helmets had recieved 5 star ratings?

    1. A very good point Paul. I agree that, especially for parents and young players, any safety and performance information is beneficial. Thank you for the comment. I’m particularly interested to see how the new Schutt Vengeance helmet tests using the STAR rating system. It is their next-generation helmet, and a big contender to the Riddell 360, but wasn’t available when the testing took place.

    2. who would complain about being first the companies care about money and if a study can make them lose money obviously they would complain. but still there study is flawed they did it based on low impacts not high impacts look at the study that schutt did. VA tech didnt take into account that football is played outside foam (which all the 5 star helmets have) becomes mushy in heat and it become rock hard in cold weather i would now cause that what happens to my shity helmet. Also, i would buy a schutt helmet even if i did believe the study schutt padding is just better and it last longer. Coming from a football play.

  4. Our son attends a small school in Nebraska. We had 7 of our 41 players who received concussions, all but one were wearing the Xenith X2 helmets – they were new this year. While my son was not one of the injured players, we are all very concerned & any feedback is appreciated. One factor that has been discussed was given that we had a severe drought in Nebraska, that the ground was harder than normal, so that could have been a fact or.

    1. I’m sorry to hear about the players on your son’s team, and would definitely express the same concern you have about the various factors that could have lead to so many concussions! Personally, I’ve never heard of the hardness of the ground factoring into a concussion, since studies have found that most concussions occurs from player to player, or helmet to helmet impacts…but as any player, trainer, or doctor would say, concussions are caused by a slew of various factors, so the firmness of the ground could definitely be one of them. My suggestion, though, would be to investigate the football helmet. We don’t stock Xenith helmets at Sports Unlimited, so I don’t have a lot of personal experience with them, and can’t speak to their effectiveness, but I can say that there is a reason Riddell and Schutt helmets continually rank higher in helmet testings, including the STAR ratings system. If players on your team have had bad experiences with the new Xenith X2, they may think of investing in a next-generation, advanced helmet like the Riddell 360 or Schutt Vengeance.

  5. Coming from BMX and realizing how important the best equipment is to the safety and confidence of our son, we’ve been reading everything we can about football helmets since he started playing in earnest. Our first helmet was the Xenith X-1, which turned out to be a very effective helmet for him in a practical, real world application. The following year after reading more and due to the fact that he is growing (he’s now 13), we bought the Riddell 360. He felt that it translated much more of the impact to his head, despite the fact that it was rated, best in class. The other thing we found disturbing was the fact that the main air intake port at the back of the helmet blew out and no one had a satisfactory replacement. He played the last four games without the benefit of additional air buffering. Next year we will look at both Schutt and Rawlings in an effort to protect him. Do any of the manufacturers offer immediate support in the event of problems like those we’ve encountered?

    1. Michael,

      First of all, thank you so much for your eloquent comment. I’m sorry to hear that the 360 did not work out for your son, although I’m happy to hear he did not suffer any major injuries because of it. But your story proves something which I’ve said for years, and have tried to reiterate in this article; no matter how highly a helmet is rated, its fit and performance is contingent on personal preference (i.e., the size of the player’s head, his playing style, age, weight, etc.). Although these ratings are great tools for players and parents, and point them towards what I’d consider to be the best helmets out there, they should not be the only tool used to determine a child’s helmet, and I’m happy to hear that you did the necessary additional research. In answer to your question though, helmet manufacturers like Riddell and Schutt offer pretty comprehensive warranties (5 years for adult polycarbonate shells and 3 years for ABS plastic youth helmets) that your helmet should fall under. If Riddell is not honoring your warranty and providing proper support, I’d suggest consulting the company you bought the helmet from. Speaking only from experience at Sports Unlimited, we personally honor football helmet warranties, and stock a full variety of replacement liners and parts, to fix any broken elements or air bladders. So, if you bought the 360 from us, please call our customer service department at 800-693-6368. Even if you didn’t, we may be able to quickly set you up with the proper part for a replacement.

      Inflatable liners can be tricky though, and there are a few things you can do to lengthen their life span and performance. First of all, don’t over-fill the liners. That means only give them 3 or 4 pumps each, at the absolute most. Over-inflating the liner can lead to an in-game blowout. Also, be sure to only use the proper inflation bulb. For your Riddell 360 for instance, make sure you use the Riddell Deluxe Football Helmet Pump. The needles are specially made for the inflation ports, and another needle or pump may actually pierce the liner and ruin it (keep in mind, that can void the warranty in some instances). So please let me know if this has helped, or given you some direction to fix your son’s helmet. If he really didn’t like the 360 though, look into Schutt helmets like the DNA Pro + or or Air XP. They’re lightweight and comfortable, with a different padding and liner system than Riddell helmets, which he might like better.

      1. Michael,
        We have the same issue as the first comment. We purchased the Riddell 360 through sportsunlimitedinc 8/2/2012. Half way through the season the inflatable protection on the crown began leaking and was no longer keeping the helmet at the optimal position. I contacted sportsunlimited mid October, and I was told that this had been an issue and they were not getting positive response from Riddell to remedy. I was also informed that I would have to probably purchase the replacement part from Riddell. Today I called Riddell and I was told that since the helmet wasn’t purchased through them they would not be able to do anything to help. It deeply saddens me that Riddell is making this equipment for our children and do not care for their protection and do not care to provide good customer service, I’m absolutely appalled at the tone the manager used. All I was kindly requesting was a replacement, and I even offered to ship the original. I’ve put off this issue since the season was over but I need to get this issue remedied.

  6. Hello again Brandon! Its articles like these that really helped round out my search for the safest helmet available for my kiddos. I would like to add that I recently read an article on the new Schutt Vengeance helmet (not listed in the ratings above) that claimed it was rated at 5 stars as well by Virginia Tech. It also claimed that the Vengeance earned top billing, by a significant margin I might add, in high impact testing at Virginia Tech (didn’t know they were running those) as well. That article, in addition to your blog reviews and info, helped me make the decision to buy the Vengeance for my boys. After long deliberation over the cost…it was the only decision I could make.

    Perhaps you could get your hands on those ratings and update the post? I know a lot of parents and players look to your blog to help make decisions and having the complete info on the Vengeance would certainly help them out. Again…thank you for all your help!

    1. Thanks Allen, good to hear from you again, and as always, it’s great to hear how this blog has influenced and informed people! I apologize for the late response, but I wanted to get all of my facts right before posting. I contacted my rep at Schutt after receiving your comment, who was able to get all of the VA Tech information on the Vengeance, including the test results. I’ll summarize what took place;

      When the initial Virginia Tech STAR Rating System study was conducted, the Schutt Vengeance was available for testing, but not available for public purchase, so VA Tech chose not to test it. In light of this, Schutt independently commissioned a parallel test of the Vengeance, and other Varsity Schutt helmets. Taking place at the Southern Impact Research Center, in Rockford, TN (the same lab used by VA Tech to calibrate their equipment), and using VA Tech’s publicly published algorithms, Schutt tested the Vengeance in exactly the same manner used in the STAR Study. Below are the results:

      Schutt Vengeance: 0.185 STAR value.

      According to the publicly posted ratings, a 5-STAR helmet is rated between 0.200 – 0.299 STAR Value, and a 4-STAR helmet is rated between 0.300 – 0.399.

      So, basically, according to Schutt, they used the exact same testing equipment and algorithms as VA Tech, to independently test their Vengeance helmet, and determined that it actually broke the threshold for 5-STAR rated helmets, and technically should be in a higher class of its own. That being said, Schutt urged me to reiterate their opinion of the tests as flawed, and inaccurate of a helmet’s actual in-game performance.

      I hope this has cleared a few things up for you, and I’ll be sure to update the article in light of this information. Thanks again Allen!

      1. That’s awesome….thanks so much for getting the facts out there. This information just isn’t readily available at this time. Its good to know that regardless of their (Schutt) opinion of VA Techs study that the Vengeance out performed competition in duplicated tests and in the tests at ICS labs.

        I figured you were taking your time and getting the facts….I like it.

  7. One important issue should everyone consider: sometimes the best rated helmet isn’t the right one for a player if it just doesn’t fit right. I play football here in germany since 1985 and still play and also had a little store selling helmets. I often had players that wanted a specific helmet but that one just didn’t fit them right, especially often Schutt.
    I tried almost every helmet over the years and now at the age of 42 I found a helmet that just fits me right and that i feel most comfortable with: the Rawlings Quantum. Even really hard hits are well absorbed and the helmet feels extremly comfy.
    But like I said, not every helmet is the right one for every head.
    If you buy a new helmet you definetly should try 2 or 3 different good ranked helmets and try them on. get the one you most secure in, not the one everyone tells you to buy!

  8. The data on the Vengence is incorrect. It scored a 0.365 in 2013 testing. Shcutt doesn’t like the testing because their helmets are consistently among the lowest scores, except for the ION 4D, which scores well. I had a shcutt air xp. It is going in the trash and I am upgrading to either the Rawlings Quantum Plus or the Ridell 360.

  9. I’m confused. I’ve read several articles about the VT research, such as this one, http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2012/05/050112-engineering-twohelmetsadded.html which indicate 5 star rated helmets are the safest. Your article says 5 star helmets are the worst. Please explain.

    “In 2012, Virginia Tech tested 15 adult large football helmet models using the STAR evaluation system. Helmets with lower STAR values provide a reduction in concussion risk, while those with higher values tend to provide less protection from concussions.”

    1. Hi, I definitely can understand the confusion here.

      The lower value a helmet receives in the testing the better it is and the higher STAR rating it will have. 5-stars are the safest helmets, but they have the lowest* score. Ratings and values have different meanings in this test, which is confusing and frustrating.

      The bottom line: 5-Star is the best.

      -Isaac

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