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I-Team: Local Schools Using Subpar Football Helmets

BOSTON (CBS) - Football helmets are the first line of defense for high school football players' heads and brains. As the focus on concussions has taken a higher profile, so have reviews of the helmets players wear. The I-Team found some local schools using helmets that at least one prominent research facility has deemed unacceptable.

On the field, the players are focused on winning. Their parents, on the sidelines, though are often increasingly worried about their safety.

Tammy and Pat McLeod say they know firsthand that parents have good reason to worry.

"It's just not worth losing a child to death or severe disability to a sport," Tammy told WBZ.

Their son, Zach McLeod, has permanent brain damage, the result of a seemingly routine hit back in 2008 when he was playing for Buckingham Browne and Nichols.

"Some of his doctors believe that his injury was a second impact syndrome," Pat said. That is when a previous concussion makes a player more susceptible to a serious brain injury.

An organization known as NOCSAE has always tested helmets for how they respond to major skull trauma. Until recently, it had been the standard for helmets.

However, in more recent years engineers at Virginia Tech University have been rating helmets on how they protect against brain injury. It was a response to a request from that school's football coach. Now, Dr. Stefan Duma and his team rank a variety of helmet makes and models on a scale from zero stars to five stars. The difference is in the helmet's construction, how padding, movement, fit and engineering protect a player's head.

"That risk is dramatic," Duma told I-Team reporter Lauren Leamanczyk. "For example, if you move from a one star helmet to some of the better four and five star helmets, you cut your concussion risk in half."

The I-Team contacted dozens of schools all over the state to determine whether their helmets rated highly on the Virginia Tech scale.

We found many area schools do use top rated four and five star helmets. Among those districts are Natick, Everett, Cambridge, and Abington.

But the I-Team also found subpar helmets in circulation, primarily in the Boston Public Schools.

According to data provided by BPS, at least one quarter of Boston's helmets rank as 2 stars or lower. That includes 29 of the worst zero star helmets.

Those helmets are spread throughout BPS high school football programs.

At Boston Latin High School, 34 players have helmets that Virginia Tech rated as just one star. Coach John McDonough says he does not believe those helmets put his players at risk. In fact, he says they have had few concussions.

Still, he admits he would like better equipment and says the district is working on getting it as their budget allows.

"Eventually we're going to wind up with the top of the line (Riddell) Revolution. You come back in five, six, seven years that's probably all you'll see on that sheet," he told the I-Team.

But years is a long time for some parents to wait.

"You're talking about a kid's brain, especially with all the evidence we've got on CTE now, you've got to cut something else out of the budget," said Tim Shea, the father of a Boston Latin football player.

The Virginia Tech rankings can be controversial. Experts are quick to point out there is no such thing as a concussion proof helmet.

High schools and manufacturers seem to be taking the study seriously.

Pat and Tammy McLeod, who've now devoted themselves to protecting other kids, say stopping concussions needs to be a multi-pronged approach.

"There has to be a full court press on awareness and on the way the tackling is done and the way you protect the brain from those types of hits," said Pat.

But, if the technology is there Tammy believes parents need to demand it.

"Put whatever kind of pressure they need to on the schools to make sure that helmets that are not safe for boys' heads are removed from the schools so that no one ever has to wear those helmets again," she said.

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