A Crash Course on Football Helmets

A Crash Course on Football Helmets

By Meghan Walsh


Because it’s the difference between keeping your skull in one piece — or not. 

By Meghan Walsh

Money can buy athletes many things. The best trainers, the hottest Nikes, the hottest arm candy. But when it comes to purchasing protection for the cranium (that thing that guards the brain), the super-rich don’t have much advantage over Joe Schmo.

Helmet price doesn’t correlate to performance.

That’s according to Stefan Duma, the professor who helped create Virginia Tech’s helmet STAR rating system, which has become one of the most referenced systems for helmet buyers, be they parents of 12-year-olds playing Pop Warner or NFL running backs. The most expensive, highly rated football helmet on the market goes for $414. But you can pick up an equally graded one for just $199. That also happens to be the price of the lowest-ranked model. All of this correlates with a recent study backed by the NFL, which also found no price correlation among the 17 most commonly worn helmets in the league.

What really differentiates helmets, most experts say, is the stuff on the inside, which is what does all the work of absorbing the impact when a 300-pound linebacker boulders into you. The outer shell is typically made of polycarbonate or plastic; and for the past 35 years, the most common padding used inside has been foam — the same material found in car seats and couch cushions. These days, helmet maker Schutt Sports, which is tied with Xenith for the most five-star models, uses thermoplastic urethane in the shape of cones for its padding. Another company uses plastic disks. Researchers are now focused on how to make helmets lighter while maintaining performance. 

You can pick up an egg without breaking the shell, but you can still scramble the yolk inside with a good shake.

Glenn Beckmann, Schutt Sports marketing director

For their part, firms that sell pricey helmets say the higher-end equipment tends to fit better and has more “cutting-edge” technology. The fit is what’s important, says Mike Oliver, president of the National Operating Committee for Standards on Athletic Equipment, a nonprofit advocacy group. Either way, there are only two different classes of helmets: the youth helmet, worn by kids up to age 13, and the adult helmet hoisted by everyone else. Still, even between these two, there is little difference. The first one simply weighs less, since the body’s neck isn’t as strong and you don’t want kids dropping their heads when they tackle.

It used to be that schools and professional equipment managers were the main ones picking out gear. More and more, though, with all the talk about concussions and traumatic brain injury, parents and athletes are getting involved. Sure, there’s still a good percentage of NFL players who have no idea what they’re wearing, says Glenn Beckmann, Schutt’s marketing director, but a growing subset are starting to follow technology advancements more closely. 

While that’s a good thing, it’s also a bit misguided, experts and coaches warn. “Helmets are not going to be the answer to the concussion crisis,” Beckmann says. “It’s going to take a village.” That means coaches teaching players to tackle safely, officials calling the game correctly and fans not celebrating the exciting yet illegal head-to-head hits. Because science still hasn’t determined exactly what causes a concussion, the only thing we know for sure is that helmets protect the skull from shattering. “You can pick up an egg without breaking the shell, but you can still scramble the yolk inside with a good shake,” says Beckmann.