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Company Has Schools Scrambling To Buy New Football Helmets

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School districts nationwide have been thrown for a loss by an unexpected expense for the upcoming school year: new football helmets.

Riddell Inc., one of the leading manufacturers of the headgear, has recommended that high-school helmets 10 or more years old no longer be used. The safety of reconditioned helmets of that age cannot be assured, the company said in December.

That announcement has left many districts and schools, fearful of wrongful-injury suits should they ignore the manufacturer's advice, scrambling to find money to purchase new helmets--at a cost that generally runs $100 or more per helmet.

"I'm sure a lot of schools are going to have to buy a lot of new helmets," said Dick Schindler of the National Federation of State High School Associations, the governing body for student athletics and other extracurricular activities.

The Milwaukee school system, for example, last month decided to spend more than $44,000 to replace some 500 helmets in the affected age range used by its 14 high schools.

In Fairfax County, Va., administrators plan to replace up to 2,000 helmets over three years, at a cost that could top $180,000.

But some competing helmet manufacturers, as well as some school officials, have questioned the new Riddell policy, suggesting that it was motivated primarily by the desire for increased sales.

"It is a general consensus among a majority of coaches that Riddell is going to benefit greatly" from the policy, said Myron Cane, the football coach at Riverside University High School in Milwaukee, which must replace 70 older helmets. "I think it is a scheme to move helmets."

Riddell officials flatly deny such assertions, maintaining that the safety of football participants was their only concern in adopting the new helmet-life policy.

They say that for many years they have advised customers that Riddell helmets should have an average life of five to six years.

Last year, the company analyzed results of studies by its materials suppliers and performed its own tests on older helmets that had been turned in for reconditioning, which involves the replacement of pads and other repairs.

The company found that the structural integrity of its helmet shell starts to deteriorate at seven years, with a "significant loss" at 10 years.

The Chicago-based firm decided that there were "far too many of our helmets in the field which were manufactured more than seven years ago," according to a memo sent to customers.

"The results of these studies make it clear that it is time for the older helmets in the field to be replaced," it said.

Riddell first announced the policy at seminars with its helmet reconditioners last fall, then issued its memo in December.

"I think it caught a lot of school systems by surprise," said Bill Arnett, national sales manager for Riddell. "But it surprised us that there were still so many old helmets in use."

Mr. Arnett estimated that there are 250,000 to 300,000 such helmets in use nationwide, although he cautioned that it was difficult to come up with a reliable figure.

Lessening Injuries a Concern

An estimated 1.5 million high-school students participate in football each year, according to the National Federation. Each player must wear a helmet, which is usually provided by the school and paid for from tax funds from the district or from athletic funds raised at the gate.

Preventing head injuries among football players has been a major concern in recent years for league sponsors and equipment manufacturers, and injuries and deaths have declined as rules and equipment have been modified for greater safety.

In 1968, there were 26 deaths of high-school football players directly related to play on the field. Last year, there were four such deaths, according to Frederick O. Mueller, chairman of the American Football Coaches Association's committee on football injuries.

In 1969, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment was formed to commission research aimed at reducing injuries. The committee is supported by a number of organizations, including the Sporting Goods Manufacturers' Association.

By 1973, nocsae had developed a test standard for football helmets, which was adopted by state athletic associations and the helmet manufacturers. Pre-standard helmets were phased out by 1980, and now all helmets must bear the nocsae seal of approval.

However, nocsae guidelines do not specify the length of time for use of a helmet.

"For football helmets, nocsae does recommend that the consumer adhere to a program of periodically having used helmets recertified," a brochure published by the committee states. "Because of the difference in the amount and intensity of usage on each helmet, the consumer should use discretion regarding the frequency with which certain helmets are to be recertified."

Voigt Hodgson, the principal investigator for nocsae, said his tests do not show the helmet degradation over time that Riddell is reporting. However, he does not dispute the company's findings.

"They apparently have seen enough shell degradation after nine years that causes the shells to crack," said Dr. Hodgson, of the department of neurosurgery at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Competing Firms Disagree

In practice, most schools extend the life of a football helmet by sending it out, either annually or on a rotating basis, to be reconditioned to make sure it meets the national standard. If it does not, the reconditioner will not recertify the helmet, officials said.

Reconditioning is considerably cheaper than purchasing a new helmet, with a typical cost cited being $35 per helmet.

Riddell is one of three major manufacturers of football helmets in the United States. Twenty years ago, there were an estimated 20 companies producing helmets, but product-liability claims and high insurance costs drove many out of the field, according to officials of the remaining companies.

The two other manufacturers are Athletic Helmet Inc. of Knoxville, Tenn., which markets the Air brand, a descendant of Bike brand helmets; and All American of Elyria, Ohio, which distributes the Maxpro brand. The companies would not release sales figures.

Officials of Riddell's competitors say they do not have recommended useful-life policies for their helmets.

"We recommend a continual process of rotating helmets, evaluating each one each year," said Julie Simmons, president of Athletic Helmet's parent company, Schutt Athletic8Sales Company.

Don Gleisner, president of All American, said: "We disagree with the Riddell philosophy. We feel a helmet should not be retired because of age. It should be retired because of use or abuse."

"A helmet worn by a middle linebacker could be done in a year or two seasons," he added. "A punter's helmet could last 10 years."

Relations Strained

Relations between Riddell and its competitors have been strained over the past year, stemming largely from Riddell's deal to provide free helmets to teams in the National Football League.

In return, Riddell is the only manufacturer that can have its logo displayed on the professionals' helmets, where it receives free television exposure. Players can wear a competing helmet, but that company's logo must be covered up.

Last fall, Schutt unsuccessfully sued Riddell for antitrust violations over its deal with professional football, saying it hurt Schutt's sales to colleges and high schools.

Riddell, meanwhile, has a libel suit pending against All American over communications to its sales force that suggested the cost of Riddell's nfl deal was behind the change in its helmet-life policy. Riddell says the deal and the helmet-life policy are unrelated.

Fear of 'Tremendous Liability'

Many school officials express dismay over Riddell's call for immediate replacement of old helmets, rather than a phaseout. But Tom Schneid, the president of Riddell, was recently quoted as saying the company would have been "derelict in our duty by not reacting to test findings and interpretations that indicated changes in the performance of our product."

School officials in Milwaukee even considered a lawsuit against Riddell until their lawyer advised that the district had no basis for challenging the company's advice about its own product.

The lawyer also warned the Milwaukee district against ignoring the Riddell policy, saying in an opinion that "a jury would have little difficulty in finding negligence" if a football player were injured wearing an old helmet after Riddell had warned against its use.

"They would open themselves up to tremendous liability should a youngster get hurt," said Don Herrmann, assistant director of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, which has also advised all its members to comply with the policy.

Athletic associations in other states, such as Alabama, Ohio, and Texas, reported little concern among members over the Riddell policy change. But that may be because the popularity of football in those states provides enough income to replace equipment more frequently, officials said.

Mr. Cane, the coach at Milwaukee's Riverside University High School, has made a decision on how he will handle the loss of his older Riddell helmets. He will replace them with Air and Maxpro brands.

"I was kind of upset Riddell pulled a stunt like this," he said. "This gave me an opportnity to inspect other helmets."

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