No uniform rules set in Tennessee for managing high school football helmet safety

WSMV4 Investigates uncovered there are no rules in Tennessee requiring high schools to keep records proving helmets are meeting safety guidelines.
WSMV4 Investigates spoke with the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, about the lack of uniform rules for managing and tracking helmet safety.
Published: Aug. 17, 2023 at 6:51 PM CDT
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) - On a practice field behind Wilson Central High School, head football coach Ben Kuhn runs his team through a preseason practice a week before the new season kicks off.

For two hours, the varsity squad engages in a series of light contact drills, wearing just shorts, shoulder pads and helmets. A practice missing the monster hits Kuhns players will dish out and receive a week later when they kick their season off against Rossview High.

While Kuhn has high expectations that his Wildcats will have a winning season and make a run in the state playoffs, the first-year coach says the health of his players will always take priority over scoring victories.

“Football’s gotten a lot of bad rap the past couple of years,” Kuhn said. “But right now, in the game, we’re safer than we’ve probably ever been when we talk about the game’s rules and especially the equipment our players wear.”

Over the past decade, concussions and head injuries have generated headlines across the sport, from the NFL down to the Pop Warner level. As a result, helmet safety has become a major focus in the sport, especially at the high school level, where Dr. Scott Zuckerman says more than a million young athletes will take to the gridiron this fall.

“When you talk about preventing concussions, there’ll never be a magic bullet,” said Zuckerman, Co-Director of the Vanderbilt Sports Concussion Center. “Having up-to-date certified helmets that are as safe as possible, I think, is really important.”

With so much focus on helmet safety, WSMV4 investigates wanted to see how high school football programs in Middle Tennessee maintain, track, and recondition the inventory of used helmets put back into play each season.

Currently, there are no laws or regulations at the federal or state level in Tennessee governing football helmet safety. There are, however, safety recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, the National Athletic Equipment Reconditioners Association, and helmet manufacturers themselves that guide how the equipment should be inspected, maintained, and taken out of play to ensure player safety.

Those safety guidelines say only certified helmets should be worn in games and practices. To remain certified, helmets need to be reconditioned at least every other year, and after ten years, used helmets should no longer be worn.

But WSMV4 Investigates uncovered there are no rules in Tennessee at the high school level, requiring high schools to keep records proving that they are meeting those guidelines.

Filing public records requests with five middle Tennessee school districts, covering 44 high schools, we found there is no uniformity in how schools manage and track helmet safety. Only 34 schools provided documents showing helmets were being reconditioned each season. 11 schools had missing or incomplete records, and only seven high schools kept complete helmet inventories, identifying helmets by a number or serial code, year of manufacture, and the last date that equipment was reconditioned.

Dr. Zuckerman, who works closely with the sport at all levels including the Tennessee Titans, believes area schools are doing a good job following safety guidelines. But even with that in mind, he feels there needs to be some oversight, at either the county or state level when it comes to having every high school in the state track reconditioning and helmet age.

“Not having uniform standards is certainly something that needs to be addressed,” said Dr. Zuckerman. “But as far as a central organization to make that happen, it’s lacking just because it’s such a heavy lift to organize that for all high school players.”

“But it could be done”, Zuckerman continued. “And that could be at the state level, or it could be at the county level. But it’s going to take a lot of organization.”

WSMV4 Investigates spoke with the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association about the lack of uniform rules for managing and tracking helmet safety.  A TSSAA official said that under current rules, players are required to wear helmets that are certified as being either new or reconditioned in accordance with safety guidelines.

And while referees are responsible for meeting with coaches before the game and verifying helmets meet that rule, TSSAA admitted game officials are not checking every single helmet before kickoff.

“Just being around the game, and my son playing, I know about how helmets are taken care of, and reconditioning,” said Marty Taylor, whose son Brayden Taylor is a Junior tackle at Wison Central Highschool. “I know Coach Kuhn is on top of that, but I think if it was governed somehow, it would be better for the sport, you know? If they could just figure out how to do that.”

Taylor says he does worry about his son getting injured, especially since Brayden missed almost all of last season to a knee injury.

“He’s actually going to play this year, and if he stays healthy this year, hopefully gets to play next year,” Taylor said.

But going into this season, he said the injury he fears most is a concussion.

“He’s a tackle, so he’s hit a lot, and my boy says his helmets get hit a lot,” Taylor said. “So, we pray before he leaves the house. It takes a lot of effort and some of the prayers above to stay safe out there.”

One reason Taylor has so much faith in their son’s equipment is how Coack Kuhn manages safety. Kuhn says under his watch, helmets are replaced after only eight seasons as opposed to the recommended ten.”

“It’s a little bit of extra expense, but it’s something that really helps with the safety of the helmet and keeping our players safe.”

Dr. Zuckerman says having a system of checks and balances in place when it comes to managing used high school helmets is vitally important because, during a season, high school helmets are often hit twice as much as helmets worn by college and pro players, thus exposing high schoolers to a great risk of head injury.

“In high school, you’re often playing offense and defense. So, for some of the best players, that could be twice as much use in one season,” Taylor said, “So, looking at all these factors and having it tested on a regular basis is probably the most important thing, along with keeping track of that maintenance.”