(WXIA)-- America's favorite sport is also one of the most dangerous ones you can play.
As spectators, we love to watch a good tackle - especially for our young players. High school football has been consistently shown in studies to be the sport with the highest concussion rate.
A helmet is the player's defense against a concussion or even worse - a traumatic brain injury.
11Alive's Catie Beck has spent the past month investigating the types of helmets used in area high schools.
DATABASE |Check your school's helmet rating
DOWNLOAD & PRINT |Print the helmet rating reference form as a guide
The results mean a lot when it comes to risking concussions. That's what researchers at Virginia Tech found in their study. They say depending on what helmet you use, you may be able to reduce your concussion risk by as much as 50 percent.
That's what they've used to compile a five-star rating of the most commonly used football helmets.
The Virginia Tech rating system goes from a "Not Recommended" rating, and proceeds from one to five stars. Researchers said they are most concerned with those helmets that are listed as "Not Recommended," along with one-and-two star rated helmets. They say the difference between those helmets at the bottom of the scale and the top-rated four-and-five star ranked helmets is very significant.
Beck went to Blacksburg, Va., to find out how researchers at Virginia Tech determined their rating system. Biomechanics scientists at the Virginia Tech testing lab test adult helmets - which is what high schools use. Each model helmet is tested 120 times, at different heights and different directions in what is called "drop-testing." The amount of impact absorbed by each helmet is measured, which helps determine the rating for each helmet.
WATCH the 11Alive investigation
VIDEO | Part I -Catie Beck explains the five star rating system
VIDEO | Part II - Meet ayoung man who knows the dangers of high school football and won a lawsuit against a helmet manufacturer. We traveled to Virginia Tech to interview the man behind the Virginia Tech study and show you the laboratory where the helmet testing is done. We show you the results of all our open records requests to see what type of helmets every high school in our area is using.
VIDEO | Part III - Catie Beck shows how schools are reacting to our investigation. Many are getting rid of the low rated helmets.
Dr. Stephan Duma says the findings show a dramatic difference in how much different models cushion the impact.
"There was no way for consumers to get any idea which helmet was better," Dumas said. "It was purely what it looks like, what it costs, what the sales rep tells me - so we were the first group to actually present independent biomechanical data, and I would absolutely encourage people to use it."
"Critics will say there is no difference between the one-star helmet and the four or five-star helmet," Beck said. "You say that is absolutely untrue."
"But when you look at the acceleration data for comparative tests, the differences are dramatic," Duma said. "And that's really the fundamental message that we're trying to say."
After learning of the five-star system, we wanted to see how our local high schools measure up to it. We received information from close to 200 high schools in metro Atlanta. We asked for records verifying which makes and models of helmets the schools were using.
What we found is that many high schools in our area are, in fact, using four and five-star helmets on the field. What we also found out is that there is a significant number using the two-star, the one-star and even the "Not Recommended" models.
We were able to find one county, Cherokee County, that was using the "Not Recommended" model helmet in one high school. We found that the one-star model helmets are being used in 14 high schools in Bartow, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb and Fulton counties. The two-star helmet is being used at 29 schools in Bartow, Carroll, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Douglas, Gwinnett, Henry, Paulding and Rockdale counties. So, in total, 36 schools in metro Atlanta are using the "Not Recommended," one-star or two-star helmets.
As with any study, there are critics. NOCSAE, the National Operating Committee for Standards in Athletic Equipment is the perhaps the most vocal against the Virginia Tech . This group gives helmets a pass/fail rating because they say the helmets all meet a safety threshold and have no need to be ranked. NOCSAE has not given any helmet currently on the market a failing grade.
"It's really easy to convey to somebody, this one performs better than this one in the test. Problem is that the test is not related to what's actually occurring," said NOCSAE founder Dave Halstead.
NOCSAE believes the Virginia Tech's data has flaws because it doesn't consider things like helmet weight which increases with better helmets but can be a risk on the field and how each helmet fits each player differently.
"There is no science to suggest there is a difference among them," said Halstead.
However, Virginia Tech stands firmly on the fact that there is and claim their research proves it.
"Helmets can get better, they have gotten a lot better, but there's always going to be risk," said Virginia Tech's Dr. Duma.
Paulding County's Director of Safety and Athletics Don Breedlove sent this to 11Alive after our investigation:
The Paulding County School District feels the safety of our students and staff is paramount. The 11 Alive investigative report places light on student/athlete safety related to concussions and there reduction. As a school district we will look at the helmet inventory of all our high schools and will no longer utilize helmets that have a 2-star rating or lower. Helmet manufacturers continue to try and improve head protection and we will only offer helmets that are 3, 4, or 5 star rated. A variety of helmets is required as not all heads are the same in size and shape and variety allows for better fits on all student/athletes.
Cobb County Athletics director Steve Jones sent 11Alive the following statement after our investigation:
I have contacted the head football coaches at that school and they have agreed that they would take them out of circulation. We do not want to put any of our student athletes at risk and now that we realize that these helmets received such a low rating we have no problem discontinuing their use. As the technology of helmet construction continues to advance we will pay close attention and phase out the older helmets.
We also have some schools that use the Schutt Air Advantage which is rated as a two star helmet. I am pretty sure that this helmet is no longer manufactured also. Even though it is rated "adequate", we will have our schools start the process of phasing these helmets out over the next year.
Douglas County's Community Relations Director Karen Stroud sent 11Alive the following statement:
"While we comply with GHSA rules and NOCSAE standards, we will take a closer look at the provided information and rating system from the Center for Injury Biomechanics partnership between Virginia Tech and Wake Forest that was brought to our attention," said DCSS Athletic Director George Chip. "Safety is our first concern with all of our students, including those participating in athletics. Our records indicate that all helmets in our system meet NOCSAE standards and fall in the categories of 3-5 STAR ratings. These are considered good to very good by this report."
In reviewing the documents we saw where one school had an inspection and reconditioning of 12 Shutt Air Advantage football helmets from September 27, 2012. These became classed in the 2 star rating in May of 2013. A current detailed helmet inventory prior to February 20, 2014 by the Athletic Director at the school indicated that these helmets are no longer in the school's helmet inventory.
Cherokee County Director of Public Relations Barbara Jacoby issued the following statement after our investigation:
Please be aware that all helmets used by CCSD high school football teams have beencertified as qualified helmets by the National Operating Committee on Standards forAthletic Equipment (NOCSAE), which is not only considered the National standard forhelmet safety, but also is the standard required by the Georgia High School Association.
In accordance with NOCSAE standards, all helmets are removed from use after 10 yearsfrom the date of manufacture; all newer helmets are reconditioned, sanitized and recertifiedby the manufacturer annually, and any damage to the helmet shell disqualifiesthe helmet from further use.
Through a partnership with Northside Hospital-Cherokee, every CCSD student athleteparticipates in the ImPACT Concussion Management Program, which includesmandatory pre-season baseline testing and strict "return to play" standards that requirepassage of an ImPACT retest and physician approval.
Since your meeting with Mr. Dunnavant, CCSD has eliminated approximately 50helmets, so now we can report that all helmets in use not only meet NOCSAEstandards, but also are ranked as "Good" or better as measured by the VirginiaTech STAR Rating System.
Newton County Schools Director of Public Relations Sherri Davis-Viniard wrote 11Alive after our investigation saying:
We will discontinue use of those helmets with a 2 rating. They will be replaced with helmets with a higher safety rating.
We did not find that schools, for the most part, did not have simply have one type of helmet. Most schools show a wide variance. They may have the one-star and the three-star in their inventory, for example.
Clayton County does, for example, have a spectrum of starred helmets that they use, ranging from one-star to five-star. But what we saw with Clayton County was kind of unique. They have one-star helmets in every single high school in their district. That was unusual, considering the data that we found.
Clayton County Custodian of Records Charles White sent this statement after our investigation:
It should be noted that the CCPS football helmet inventory does include helmets that have a single star rating. These helmets are older and are being replaced as quickly as the athletic department's budget will allow.
Cost-wise, there are, according to the Virginia Tech study, two-star helmets that are actually more expensive than some helmets in the four or five-star category. Price does not necessarily correlate with the star-rating system.
How can football parents and students find out what types of helmets are being used in their own schools? We have taken all the data and placed it in a database on 11Alive.com so that everyone can find information on helmets being used in their local schools.
Schools are listed in alphabetical order, and includes information on helmet make and model and star rating. This allows you to take our investigation and see how it affects your family right now.