With its latest set of ratings, the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab is setting new standards for safety in the fastest-growing team sport in the U.S.: flag football.
Leagues dedicated to flag football and other low- and no-contact versions of the sport, like 7-on-7, are sprouting up all over the country, launched by cities, schools, nonprofits, and even NFL stars; tournaments now get airtime on the NFL’s broadcast network.
The shift has been especially dramatic in younger demographics: Over the past few years, the number of kids between the ages of 6 and 17 playing flag football has ballooned to more than 1.5 million, according to data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association — actually edging out the number playing the traditional tackle version of the game.
Sports equipment manufacturers are rushing to catch up, and that’s where the head-injury biomechanics expertise housed in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering is proving invaluable. Flag football players haven’t historically worn protective headgear, but as participation skyrockets, many leagues have begun mandating it, especially during tournaments.
“This is a sport that’s growing in popularity,” said Steve Rowson, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics and the Helmet Lab’s director. “It’s noncontact, but players can still hit their heads, so leagues are starting to require headgear. But there hasn’t been data to say what’s good and what’s not.”
Headgear for flag football comes in the form of padded caps that cover much of the player’s head in a layer of stiff foam designed to absorb the energy of impacts that might cause injuries. These headgear have entered the market in a regulatory vacuum, with no required safety standard like the ones that set impact-protection thresholds for helmets for varsity football, hockey, cycling, and other sports.
So the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab stepped in. The lab, which began rating varsity football helmets in 2011 and has since expanded into headgear for hockey, soccer, and cycling, develops their consumer-friendly, data-driven five-star rating system by studying possible impact scenarios in each sport and recreating them in the lab.
Those tests allow them to evaluate which headgear models best reduce the acceleration of the head under conditions likely to be experienced by real players. The ratings have changed the way helmets and other headgear are purchased and designed; they’ve given players, coaches, and parents a new tool they can use when selecting sports equipment with concussion protection in mind and manufacturers a way to assess the effectiveness of new models.
To rate caps sold for flag football, the research team found inspiration in a sport with a similar contact profile: soccer. (In fact, some of the same models are marketed for both sports.) The helmet lab had released ratings for soccer headgear in 2018, testing the foam headbands and caps on a track that sends two dummy headforms slamming into each other, mimicking two players colliding on the field.
To adapt the test methodology for flag football, the researchers adjusted the impact locations to reflect differences in player interaction between the two sports.
“In soccer, when two players go up to head a ball, it’s pretty well-defined how they’re going to knock heads,” Rowson explained. “But when you’re going to grab flags or go after a ball, you can hit your head differently than you would when you’re going up for a header.”
The Helmet Lab team tested 12 models. When the data analysis was complete, the ratings included two five-star models and one four-star model; the remaining caps earned three stars or fewer.
In general, each model’s performance depended on the thickness and stiffness of the foam used in the padding. The highest-rated helmets had relatively stiff padding, which allows the cap to be thinner and still provide adequate protection.
“As the padding gets thicker, it can get softer, but it needs a minimum stiffness so it doesn’t bottom out before it’s absorbed the energy of the impact,” Rowson explained.
The ratings have arrived amid strong demand for information on the performance of flag-football headgear — and for Virginia Tech’s verdict in particular. Texas’ 7on7 league required that players participating in this year’s tournament season don headgear that earned four or five stars in the university’s ratings. (This year, players relied on the ratings for soccer headgear, which included several multisport models; when the fall season starts, they’ll be able to draw on ratings designed specifically for flag football.)
The Helmet Lab team plans to expand their research on head impacts in flag football and use what they learn to make their ratings even more robust.
“We’ll collect data on the field and use that to refine our methodology,” Rowson said. “But this is data that people can use now, when there’s a real need for it. Headgear aren’t going to eliminate concussions from flag football, but for certain types of impacts, they can reduce risk.”