When Stefan Duma released his first STAR Rating research evaluation in May 2011, the Virginia Tech engineering professor and his team on the school’s Blacksburg, Virginia, campus was met with immediate scorn.
The NFL jumped on the defensive, responding with a fervent campaign showcasing existing safety measures. High-profile officials from all levels of football, who saw the study as an attack on their game, tried to poke holes in the research. Hate mail rolled into Duma’s office in the university’s engineering building from all over the country.
Duma’s study introduced a new equation for measuring head impacts and their relationship to different football helmets, and with it a database rating every football helmet on the market. The aim was to inform consumers across football with a base of independent, analytical information, similar to the automobile industry’s Kelley Blue Book. The findings forced coaches, manufacturers and officials around the nation to look in the mirror and face the undeniable dangers threatening their sport.
Football and the way it approached its helmets, for the first time in nearly half a century, was forced to change.
“We pushed the whole industry to start thinking about how they could make safer helmets,” Barry Miller, the helmet lab’s director of outreach, says. “Our work generated manufacturers to design a better helmet and for the industry to raise the bar.”
Nine years later, Duma’s Virginia Tech Helmets Lab stands as the nation’s authority on high school and college football helmet research and ratings. Through its work, a safer, more sustainable era of football has spawned in the past decade. But as awareness and safety surrounding helmets have risen rapidly since that initial study in 2011, so have the financial costs associated with purchasing and maintaining them, and with it has emerged a divide among football programs across Tulsa.
In the lead-up to the 2019 high school football season, the Tulsa World spoke to coaches, trainers and administrators at nearly two dozen area schools, as well as industry professionals and experts, to gain insight into the practices, processes and challenges associated with maintaining helmets and ensuring safety within local football programs. The interviews revealed that each of the nine programs within the Tulsa Public School system as well as suburban counterparts including Jenks, Union, Owasso and Broken Arrow are meeting mandated national helmet standards and actively working to provide even better protection for their athletes.
As the issue of helmet safety has moved to the forefront nationally, area schools have risen to the challenge with an urgency to get out in front of the shifting landscape. Many have implemented educational programs to enhance knowledge among coaching staffs, trainers and administrators. Others have invested in technology, introducing a more scientific and data-driven approach to reducing head impacts on the field. Perhaps most importantly, it’s no longer just medical trainers but coaches, too, who have become authorities on things helmet related.
On the matter of helmets, football players in Tulsa are safer than they have ever been.
But as issues of the past have been remedied in recent years, others have taken their place. A helmet that would have cost $150-$200 15 years ago might now cost double or even triple that, and the costs associated with maintaining a certified varsity helmet have skyrocketed since the beginning of the decade. Helmets, in 2019, have become a substantial expense, and not every local football program is financially equipped to keep up.
Each local program surveyed by the Tulsa World is able to meet required standards, but some reach and exceed the bar more comfortably than others. When it comes to helmet maintenance, and in turn helmet safety across local football, there is a gap. The common divider among area programs is financial.
“At the end of the day those helmets are more important than anything to me because I want to protect their heads,” says Central coach Kip Shaw. “But sometimes we just don’t have that much to spend.”
Some of the quotes Sports Columnist Guerin Emig gathered in his four-part series on the 1999 OU football team.