Hawaii public schools struggle to provide athletes with top-rated helmets

From Hollywood movies about the dangers of concussions to real-life tragedies involving brain damage, head injuries on the football field are getting a lot of attention recently.

Not all helmets are created equal when it comes to protection.

Only half of Hawaii’s public high schools with football teams have access to the top-rated helmets, and even at the campuses with the best helmets available, your child may still be handed a lower-rated piece of equipment.

Rich Miano has coached collegiate and high school football, and played professionally in the NFL. He recalls heading out onto one of Hawaii’s private school football fields as coach of a public school team.

“Everything they have is so beautiful, and here I am at a public high school, Kaiser High School, and we look like the Bad News Bears. They look like the New York Giants,” Miano said.

A fundraising effort followed to bring their equipment up to snuff — more than $30,000 to improve protective gear for the team.

“Not everybody is capable of that type of fundraising, but that’s where the state has to step up, corporate sponsorship, whatever it takes, we need to do for our kids,” Miano said.

Virginia Tech has set the standard with its star-rating of helmets for football and other sports. Only half of Hawaii’s public schools with football teams own the top-rated helmets.

“I think that obviously the other half need to get up to par,” Miano said.

So where does your kid’s school rank? Click here for the full breakdown using data provided by the DOE.

Nanakuli has access to only three-star helmets, called “good” by Virginia Tech. Kailua has twos and threes, with two stars being “adequate” in the rankings.

There are a lot of two-star helmets lingering in the equipment bins at schools that also have a sprinkling of three- through five-star rated helmets.

At Mililani and Waipahu, your kid might draw a two, three, or four. At Castle, Kaimuki, Kalaheo, Kauai, and Leilehua, ratings range from the top five all the way down to two.

The DOE said in a statement that “such ratings are used as guidelines but not as requirements” and “player safety is a high priority in all DOE athletics programs.”

“What should parents, families and players be looking at when they look at their player’s helmet?” Always Investigating asked Ross Oshiro of Hawaii Concussion Awareness and Management Program (HCAMP).

“The main thing they should be looking at is the warning label,” he replied. “The other part is when they buy the helmet, it has this sticker on it. It meets the standard. It also has a re-certification sticker on it.”

If the sticker doesn’t display the current year, “that helmet may not be certified,” Oshiro said.

The DOE said it requires schools to annually send helmets in for such certifications, get them reconditioned, and pull damaged ones out of service.

Officials say most schools try to replace a portion of their helmet inventory each year, but that “budget limitations require programs to plan their annual equipment spending carefully across all teams.”

We asked the department what it invests in each school’s safety equipment and were told $4,486 per school for all sports, plus $285 per team.

Considering the fact that a top-rated helmet could cost around $400, that money doesn’t go far.

But a helmet doesn’t protect against all head injuries, and teaching ways to prevent concussions has been the mission of HCAMP, which stayed alive this year after Department of Health funding was to expire with a new $450,000 state appropriation.

“Educating the athlete on how to make a tackle, that’s probably the biggest thing, teaching technique,” said Oshiro. “The other thing is, is the athlete in shape when they come into the season? A strong core, a strong neck prepares them for the brutality of the sport.”

They’re also trying to get more teams to tackle in a different way, taking the head out of the game, like the Seattle Seahawks do. We caught up with lineman Michael Bennett who explained: “That’s what we preach. Use your shoulder, get leverage. Never use your head. Keep your head out of contact. We do a great job of that. That’s why we don’t have as many concussions as other teams.”

When we told him about how much each public school gets, Bennet said, “It’s really sad. Maybe everybody should get together and have outreach about it. It’s about the community understanding what’s going on with their kids. That’s pretty sad.

“We should do something to raise (money),” he added. “As a matter of fact, I might do it, do something where I could raise money for different schools that don’t have helmets.”

“What’s it going to take to get every kid the safest helmet available?” Always Investigating asked Miano.

“I think hopefully and DOE and the state obviously have to allow bigger budgets,” he said. “The DOE, the athletic directors and the athletic department have to find funding so that every kid has a five when it comes to helmet safety.”

Coming up later this week on Always Investigating, which sports see the most concussions, and what could be done to protect those kids?

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