Still, many athletes, parents, and coaches view the helmet—perhaps the most recognizable safety measure in modern sports—as something of a savior, the thing that will keep most concussions at bay. According to a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center poll, only one in four Americans "understand[s] that safety equipment—such as helmets or mouth guards—cannot prevent the majority of all concussions." The company that makes the safest helmet can sell its product at a premium. (For example, Riddell’s SpeedFlex, which topped Virginia Tech's STAR safety-ratings study in 2014, sold for $400, or $100 more than most competing helmets.) Consequently, most helmet companies pour a large percentage of their resources into research and development.
But what exactly are they moving towards? Consumers demand safety, but safety can be hard to define. Several athletic-equipment companies’ promises of concussion reduction haven’t held up to scrutiny. In 2013, for example, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that Riddell could not claim that its Revolution model reduced concussion risk by 31 percent; the following year, the agency sent a letter asking several sporting-goods retailers to substantiate the descriptions of mouth guards on their websites as protecting against concussions. Public studies like Virginia Tech’s, then, are a way for companies to imbue their safety claims with some authority.
Since it was developed by the Virginia Tech engineering professor Stefan Duma in 2011, the STAR (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk) system has been influential in determining which helmets see higher sales than others. Some high-school coaches and even school boards have made five-star helmets mandatory for their players. In response, many companies have altered their models to better conform to the system’s criteria—“The STAR system has significantly affected how we design helmets,” Beckmann wrote—but not all companies are happy about STAR’s power in the field.
“These ratings are misleading people,” Robert Erb, the CEO of the helmet company Schutt, told Bloomberg in January. “People are now using them to determine which helmets to put their youth leagues into, which is truly insane.” (The safest helmet for a kid isn’t necessarily the safest for an adult, and vice versa.) When Schutt released its “VTD” helmet line (short for “variable thickness and durometer”) in 2014—which included two helmets that received a five-star safety rating—the company’s press release noted Schutt’s disagreement with the Virginia Tech methodology. "To date, there is scant evidence to support the conclusion that the VA Tech study is predictive," the release reads, "that is, that a higher STAR rated helmet will reduce the likelihood of concussive episodes in football players."
Some helmet-safety researchers feel the same way. The STAR system has been come under fire in recent years for failing to incorporate rotational acceleration into its criteria. The Virginia Tech methodology only looks at linear acceleration, or straight-line blows. But evidence shows that rotational acceleration—the kind of force that comes from a head-spinning blow—is the more important factor in determining concussion risk. Worse, a helmet built primarily to withstand linear forces may actually leave the athlete more exposed to rotational forces. "If you make a big, fat, soft helmet," Blaine Hoshizaki, a researcher at the University of Ottawa’s Neuro-trauma Impact Science Laboratory, told Washingtonian in 2014, "you're making a huge helmet that will increase the risk of getting hit and may create higher rotations."