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At your service: reconditioning your football helmets.

How NOCSAE and NAERA brought the recertification problem to a "head"

Athletes in contact sports have always understood that serious injury is just a play away. Fortunately, the modern gladiator is the beneficiary of equipment that is far superior to what it was a generation ago. Never before have our schools had such an abundance of resources to help minimize injuries.

Giant strides in the development of safer equipment can be traced back to the epidemic of serious football injuries in the late 1960s. In 1968 alone, 32 football fatalities were recorded in organized play and four in sandlot play.

So alarming was the rate of head and spinal injuries that a group of school administrators and manufacturers joined forces to create a set of standards to ensure a safer football helmet.

This group became the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE), thanks to the joint efforts of the American College Health Association, the National Federation, and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

Shortly thereafter, the sporting goods reconditioners joined the NOCSAE team to play a vital role in policy making.

Developed to commission research for the reduction and prevention, of injuries, NOCSAE directed its first efforts towards improving the football helmet. By 1973, every player participating under either NCAA or National Federation rules was required to wear a helmet in which "Meets NOCSAE Standard" was permanently stamped. That gave rise to the establishment of standards for the baseball/softball batting helmets and lacrosse helmets.

The formation of NOCSAE was a boon for the reconditioning industry on many levels. Up until then, the helmets were being reconditioned and recertified with no standards in place. The formation of NOCSAE and its standards forever changed the perception of the reconditioner.

"The reconditioners were viewed as rag pickers," reports Byron Goldman, Executive Director of the National Athletic Equipment Reconditioners Association (NAERA). "They were required to do everything such as patch helmet shells and fix jerseys, and the schools were happy with the role we were serving.

"The NOCSAE standards allowed us to recondition and recertify helmets within a standard that coaches and A.D.s were comfortable with."

The helmet test system was implemented with an artificial headform, much like the head on the dummy used in car-crash testing. The equipment designed for the initial certification tests and described in the football helmet standard was then installed by the manufacturers in their plants, after which the manufacturers assumed responsibility for the certification.

The test consisted of dropping the headform 16 times onto a firm rubber pad at ambient temperatures, plus two 60-inch drops after the exposure of the helmet to 120 degree Fahrenheit for four hours.

Baseball and softball helmets are now tested by delivering a baseball at 60 mph towards a helmeted headform.

Lacrosse helmets are tested under three conditions: First, the helmet is dropped onto six specified locations plus a random location.

Second, the helmet is struck with a ball on the front, side, rear and two random locations at 60 mph.

Finally, the helmet is struck with the oak handle of a lacrosse stick on the front side, the back side, and two random locations.

While football and lacrosse helmets can be recertified, baseball and softball helmets are not because it is generally cheaper to replace them with new helmets.

One of the industries largest reconditioners utilized the drop-test equipment in 1975. The ensuing research found that 84 percent of the used helmets being reconditioned failed the initial NOCSAE testing and were discarded.

Because youth, high school, and college teams were using a large number of reconditioned helmets, the Board decided in 1976 to include a NAERA representative as a Board member. The NOCSAE Football Helmet Standard was revised in 1977 to allow the reconditioners to recertify helmets according to their original NOCSAE certification.

"While we are happy with the standards in place, that doesn't mean we are no longer investigating ways to do things better," says Mike Oliver, Executive Director of NOCSAE. "We have all but eliminated the serious, sometimes fatal skull injuries that used to occur at almost epidemic rates."

By 1985, a dramatic reversal of head and spinal injuries was observed, leading to zero deaths in 1990 for the first time since such records were kept.

Much of NOCSAE's success can be attributed to teamwork, the reconditioners' respect for the established standards, and a dogged approach to making what is good even better. With no police force to monitor its licensees' performance, NOCSAE does use its resources to educate new reconditioners and make certain that all the reconditioners are following the testing guidelines.

Byron Goldman of NAERA meets with all new association members to see that they have the essential machinery to handle helmet testing, riveting, and assorted other reconditioning procedures. While the manufacturers test the helmets they produce, the licensed reconditioners test and recertify the used helmets themselves, according to the standard in force when the helmet was new.

Helmets are not only recertified to NOCSAE standards, but to published manufacturers' standards.

Goldman also promotes the idea of reconditioners visiting each other to trade information and educate themselves within the industry.

NOCSAE and NAERA also have their technical advisor, David Halstead, a contracted research professor and director of the Southern Impact Research Laboratory at the U. of Tennessee, visit half of the 32 members of NAERA on a yearly basis to verify their testing equipment and see that the personnel testing the equipment are doing it in the proper controlled environment.

Halstead's testing process starts before his visits. He uses testing data from the reconditioners to ensure that they are testing under the same conditions. Unlike a manufacturer who produces a helmet in a homogeneous condition, a reconditioner must recertify helmets that are in all kinds of condition from all parts of the country.

"Testing should be done in the same manner to create the same environment," explains Halstead. "I want to make sure that when I visit a reconditioner he has all the right equipment, the equipment tester knows how to use the machine, and the testing is being performed in the proper environment."

All testing machines sold to reconditioners are programmed so that the equipment has to be tested before data can be inputed into the machine. This software puts the reconditioners on a step-by-step testing course that ensures the proper recording of the data.

"The introduction of NOCSAE and its standards made a tremendous difference," asserts Nick Simchuck, a 50-year veteran of the reconditioning industry and president of Solar System Athletic. "What it did was help clean up the act of the reconditioners who had gotten into bad habits. People issuing football helmets before the standards were usually not on the ball.

"Testing alone does not ensure the safety of the helmet. All that it does is make sure all the pieces are in the helmet. Coaches and athletic directors need to supervise the process of the kids trying on helmets."

As the trust between school administrators and reconditioners developed, so did the reconditioners' ability to provide more valuable services. Dealing with reconditioners not only made economic sense, but the NOCSAE standards created a level playing surface for them to compete.

"Seeing the NOCSAE seal on a football helmet gives me great comfort," says Steve McBrie, athletic director at Lynfield (MA) H.S. and its freshman football coach the past 20 years. "Having my reconditioner's sales rep come in and fit my kids' football helmets is a tremendous upside.

"I would tell coaches who are dealing with reconditioners for the first time to speak with some of their other clients, then determine whether the reconditioner you are prospecting fits your program's needs."

"And always ask the reconditioner how many helmets over the year they have failed through recertification. The good companies will tell you how many failed and will explain why. When you go to your athletic department with an order for new helmets, you will know that you are basing your purchase on safety, not money, thanks to the explanation from the reconditioners."

Coaches and A.D.s dealing with reconditioners for the first time should do some research before signing a contract. Besides talking with customers from the reconditioner's client list, they should also find out what replacement parts are used in helmets, whether the reconditioners provide a thorough report on all parts replaced, and, most importantly, whether they are properly insured.

"I don't think a coach or A.D. should have any problem asking a reconditioner flat out about its liability policy," says Bill Klicka, athletic director at Fairleigh Dickinson University and its head football coach from 1974-96. "It is in the reconditioner's own best interest to have the best possible coverage.

"I would also recommend that the coach visit the reconditioning plant and watch how the equipment is tested, and to ask whether they follow the NOCSAE standards, and how many helmets they have failed during recertification over a one-year period."

Even the most rigorous safety standards cannot completely eliminate sports injuries. But giving your athletes the best opportunity to succeed in a safe environment takes planning, research, and asking the right questions.
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Author:Mazzola, Gregg
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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