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Helmet Companies Butt Heads Over Riddell Policy

September 19, 1990|MIKE REILLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the rear of his athletic equipment warehouse in Anaheim, Bob Brown walks through Orange County's football helmet graveyard.

His 800 used and abused helmets, all awaiting a decent burial, feature the team logos and colors of almost every Orange County high school.

There's Mater Dei's red-and-white-striped helmet, and Huntington Beach's black and orange gear. A pile of Ocean View's red-and-gold helmets sit nearby.

Brown, who supplies every county school with football equipment and also repairs equipment, has watched the number of helmets passing through his warehouse increase steadily in the past three years. After Riddell, the nation's leading football helmet manufacturer, announced last fall that testing showed its used and unused helmets had a life span of 10 years, the used helmets started pouring in.

The company said it wouldn't be liable for any player injured while wearing those helmets, and schools across the nation scrambled to buy new ones.

Brown ships most of the used helmets back to Riddell's main office in Chicago, where they will be destroyed. He asks schools that are buying new helmets to return their old ones to him in an attempt to keep a dangerous helmet from being used.

"We have to dispose of the whole batch in some way," Brown said. "We drill holes in them so they can't be used again. We usually don't have this many sitting around. We should be smashing them up, but we've fallen behind."

Some schools cut the helmets in half and turn them into wall plaques.

"They make for nice trophies," said Jim Griffis,director of administrative services with the Garden Grove Unified School District. "The schools give them out at their awards banquets at the end of the year."

But for all their creative uses, Riddell's retired helmets have created quite a fuss throughout the nation's school systems--and among competing sporting goods manufacturers.

The other two helmet manufacturing companies, Athletic Helmet, Inc., which makes the Air brand, and All American, which makes the Maxpro brand, have not set a life expectancy for their helmets.

The competing helmet manufacturers have questioned Riddell's policy, suggesting that it was motivated only to increase sales of its helmets.

Don Gleisner, president of All American, said, "We disagree with the Riddell philosophy. We feel a helmet should not be retired because of age. It should be retired because of use or abuse.

"A helmet worn by a middle linebacker could be done in a year or two seasons. A punter's helmet could last 10 years."

Riddell officials deny using the policy as a way to sell more helmets.

Bill Arnett, national sales manager for Riddell, said the company is more concerned with protecting football players than selling helmets.

"The bottom line is the athlete," Arnett said. "I think it's a great opportunity for us to keep our product neat and clean."

Brown said many schools misinterpreted Riddell's purpose.

"There's a lot of hysteria out there and it's not being created by us," he said. "It's being created by our competitors."

Riddell's announcement came at a time when the company and its competitors have been battling over an equipment contract with the NFL.

Riddell offers free helmets to NFL teams in return for its logo display on the helmets. NFL players can wear a competing brand of helmet, but the logo must be covered.

"They give the pros free helmets to get nationwide advertising," Gleisner said. "But then they turn around and charge high schools $100 each to replace theirs. I think they're showing disrespect to the nation's high schools."

All American saw the Riddell policy as a chance to sell its Maxpro brand. All American cut $10 off its regular price of $79.99 in an attempt to attract Riddell customers.

Riddell, the oldest manufacturer of football helmets, started its current design in 1973 and has dominated the market.

All American is in its third year of making helmets, and Athletic Helmet, Inc., a descendant of the Bike brand helmet, is four years old.

A fourth manufacturer, Rawlings Sporting Goods Co., quit making helmets in May 1988, citing increased liability and skyrocketing insurance costs.

"One of the problems we have is that we're so much older than our competitors," Arnett said. "Our research is an ongoing thing, but it's something that was brought to the forefront two years ago when we saw a lot of helmets being reconditioned and recertified that shouldn't be."

Brown reconditions and recertifies helmets for the Orange County schools.

He said he repairs most helmets for about $20, depending on what parts are needed. Most schools have their helmets reconditioned annually.

"The individual parts (such as facemask and padding) have gone up so much that you could almost buy a new helmet," he said. "I've worked on some eight- and nine-year-old helmets that cost $40 or $50 to fix."

And if they're beyond repair . . . it's off to the graveyard.

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