Oregon football players used three helmets last season — green, black and white — that were mixed and matched with myriad uniform combinations.
The Ducks were pioneers in football fashion and other schools have followed, using helmets to make a statement. Now, the NCAA wants to determine whether style is coming at the expense of safety.
The governing body's football oversight committee will meet this week in Indianapolis and is to begin studying whether multiple helmets could lead to more concussions and serious head and neck injuries.
"The notion is that let's do as much research and data collection as we can to be able to start answering those questions as to whether one helmet or more helmets is the best way to go in terms of short and long-term safety," said Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson, who leads the NCAA football competition committee that reports to oversight. "We just want to know what is the best way to go about it?"
Anderson's school is among those that have embraced ever-changing uniform combinations. Sometimes the Sun Devils' head gear is black. Sometimes white. Sometimes gold. Sometimes maroon or gray.
Last year, Oklahoma State players were given five helmets. Virginia Tech players had four. Schools often unveil the week's uniform-helmet combo on social media a few days before a game as a way to generate interest in the program.
"Style and who looks cool and who's matching with all these different uniforms combinations each week on the helmets and the shoes, that is big-time concern when you talk about recruiting, marketing and buzz and aesthetics on game day and other times," Anderson said. "But at the end of the day, if we're not protecting these players at the highest degree then we're faltering."
Many schools that prefer to stick to a traditional look will occasionally dabble in an alternative helmet. Ohio State, for example, had players wear black helmets in two games last season.
Penn State, Alabama, Southern California and Michigan are among the schools that still have their players wear one helmet — as long as it remains functional.
In the NFL, this will be the fifth season in which players may only wear the one helmet. In 2013, the league's Head, Neck and Spine Committee and the Player Safety Advisory Panel recommended that players no longer be given new helmets to match alternative uniforms. Any aesthetic alterations of the helmet can only be made with decals.
The concerns about switching helmets mostly involve fit. Helmets come in different sizes and are adjusted by equipment staffers to specific players in a few ways, depending on the manufacturer and style. Most Riddell helmets, one of the two most popular brands along with Schutt, use an inflatable bladder system to get just the right fit for safety and comfort. Some helmets have removable padding and others use straps.
Schools might give players multiple helmets, but they are usually the same make and model in different colors.
Dr. Stefan Duma, a professor of engineering at Virginia Tech who has done extensive work on football helmet safety, does not see a safety hazard in multiple helmets.
"In the worst case, our research shows that fit is only a 5 percent issue. In lab testing with helmets way too tight and way too loose, you only change performance about 5 percent," Duma said in an email. "The schools that can afford to have so many helmets also have a great deal of staff to help with this. In the end, I do not see it as a concern."
Anderson said advances in helmet technology could support a one-helmet approach.
"There are in fact helmet manufacturers and folks trying to get to the point where they will literally do 3-D model of your head, with all the angles and the bumps, the indents, whatever it is, that is customized, form-fitted to your head and your head only," he said. "They can do that, but I'm telling you the price right now would be prohibitive particularly if you were driven by having four or five helmets that match your outfit."
Anderson said the competition committee also plans to look at whether changing shoes during a season compromises performance and safety.
The NCAA settled a class-action concussion lawsuit last year, agreeing to spend $75 million on medical monitoring of college athletes and prevention research. Currently, the NCAA and the major football conferences are facing dozens of class-action suits from former players who contend they sustained concussions and did not receive proper treatment.
"There is no question that while the motive is the health and safety, also the motive is protecting yourself from folks down the line that say you didn't do enough when you could have," Anderson said.