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Counties forced to spend thousands on new football helmets

Mike Williams’ secretary needs a new computer. But, instead of replacing outdated office supplies this summer, the Howard County Public School System’s athletics program coordinator has to use that money — and over $110,000 more — to replace nearly 600 football helmets.

Mike Williams, athletic program coordinator for the Howard County Public School System, says new reconditioning rules are forcing his district to spend more than $110,000 on football helmets.

A change in how long helmets can be used is forcing Williams, and other high school athletic departments around the state and the country, to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep their players on the field this fall.

The National Athletic Equipment Reconditioning Association said in March 2011 that its members would no longer recondition any football helmets more than 10 years old. The rule affects all helmets to be used for the 2012 season. Helmet safety is determined by the National Operational Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.

The process of reconditioning a helmet is overseen by NAERA. For years, high schools have been sending helmets to local reconditioning factories to be recertified for use in the upcoming season. The factories charge between $30 and $50 to refurbish the helmets.

Before the policy change, Schutt Sports, an athletic equipment company that also specializes in baseball and softball gear, did not have a specific shelf life for its football helmets. Unlike other major helmet competitors such as Rawlings Sporting Goods Company Inc. and Riddell Sports Inc., Schutt helmets could be sent back to reconditioning factories for longer than 10 years.

On a national scale, the new ruling no longer gives Schutt an edge over its competitors.

“Not having a 10-year policy greatly benefited my company,” said Dick Cann, president and sales representative at Marlow Sports Inc., a local vendor that holds exclusive rights to athletic equipment purchases by many counties in Maryland, including Howard and St. Mary’s.

“In the helmet business, it’s like Pepsi and Coke. There’s Rawlings, and there’s Schutt,” he said.

Now, all helmets are subject to the 10-year policy, putting a strain on athletic departments across the state as they prepare to purchase new helmets by the hundreds.

“We had between 550 and 600 helmets that were declared unusable in our county,” said Williams, who is not happy about the policy.

According to Williams, each school receives an annual sports equipment budget. In a typical year, school athletic departments can expect to replace two to 10 helmets.

This year, Centennial High School alone will need 88. New Schutt helmets range anywhere between $150 and $220, depending on the model.

Some schools expect to spend close to $16,700, according to Williams.

“That’s almost half of their budget,” he said. “It put our schools in a tough situation. We were a bit upset.”

To compensate, some county athletic departments are covering the difference. Williams noted that he had to dip into reserves and shuffle money around in order to ensure that they had the money.

That new computer may have to wait until next year.

St. Mary’s County found itself in a similar situation. According to Dr. Andrew C. Roper, supervisor of instruction for physical education, health and athletics for St. Mary’s County Public Schools, 135 helmets needed to be replaced.

“Knowing that there were going to be some expenses, we set up money in other accounts,” he said.

Greg LeGrand, supervisor of the athletics program for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, said that the central office needed to take $90,000 from emergency funds and other discretionary accounts to foot the bill.

“It wasn’t in this year’s budget,” said LeGrand.

Anne Arundel will replace between 400 and 450 helmets, while Baltimore County needed nearly 600, according to their respective athletic departments.

According to Marlow Sports’ Cann, most competitors already had a 10-year reconditioning policy in place.

“Schutt did not want this. It was forced upon them. Frankly, a lot of people aren’t happy about it,” he said.

Michael Sye, acting athletic coordinator for Baltimore County Public Schools, said he started planning for the change earlier than others. Rather than put the entire order on this year’s budget, Sye began replacing helmets not long after the new ruling was put into effect.

“It wasn’t like this was a secret,” said Sye. “Some may not have taken it as seriously as they should have.”

Williams says he wasn’t well informed on the issue, which could have resulted from a lapse in communication between Marlow Sports and Howard County, said the athletics program coordinator.

For NAERA, accountability was ultimately the deciding factor in the policy change.

“We felt that a helmet under 10 years old would still be good,” said Ed Fisher, NAERA’s executive director. “After a certain time frame, these manufacturers could no longer be liable.”

Fisher said that the mandate was not solely due to concussion issues, although they did play a part in the decision.

The change has received positive reviews, according to NAERA.

“I think it’s an excellent policy,” said Ray Leone, Anne Arundel County PTA president. “Parents have to be careful when it comes to letting their children play football. You still have to be cognizant of the dangers.”

County athletic departments in Maryland are less than thrilled, as hundreds of older helmets needed to be thrown away. Regardless of the number of years a helmet has actually been used, if it was made over 10 years ago, NAERA has deemed it to be defunct.

“This year, I’m fed up with football helmets,” said Cann. “This has definitely tarnished the whole helmet business.”