Given the NFL's abysmal track record in dealing with concussions, it should come as no surprise that many area high schools are ill-prepared to keep kids safe from brain injury.
A survey by the Inquirer found that many area high schools lack the safest helmets available to protect players from head trauma. While many schools have upgraded to safer helmets, a number of schools — including all of the public or charter schools in Philadelphia that were surveyed — have older helmets with lower safety ratings.
To be sure, the leading equipment manufacturers continue to improve the quality of football helmets, making it hard for schools to remain current. The cost of helmets, which can range from $250 to nearly $1,000, is a big factor, especially at poorer school districts.
Football helmets come with safety ratings ranging from one star, the worst, to five stars. However, helmets with a one-star, or marginal, rating, can still meet standards for use set by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, a nonprofit formed in response to concerns about helmet safety.
More problematic, helmets can be used for 10 years. Given the pace of safety upgrades, a 10-year-old football helmet is as outmoded as a Corvair, the 1960s Chevrolet that was deemed unsafe to drive at any speed.
But the unevenness at which schools have the safest football equipment underscores the risk many high school and elementary school students face when they walk onto the football field. It also raises broader questions about the players' overall safety.
For example, a 2015 study found the majority of high schools lack full-time athletic trainers. The lack of trained medical staff is especially acute surrounding concussions, since many head injuries go undiagnosed and untreated, which can lead to further damage.
Consider how the NFL has failed its players, even though teams have the financial resources to pay for the best equipment and a trained medical staff. A recent study found that 99 percent of the deceased football players who were studied had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive, degenerative disease caused by repetitive brain trauma. For years, the NFL fought and denied any connection between CTE and playing football before finally conceding the link in 2016.
Much remains unknown about the hazards of concussions and repeated blows to the head at the professional level, let alone at the high school or grade school levels, where brains are still developing. But the studies that have been completed raise red flags that warrant further study and increased attention to safety.
This year, the National Federation of State High School Associations, the governing body of high school sports, implemented several rule changes in the name of safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called for more nontackling leagues for youth players as well as more instruction in safe tackling techniques.