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The ZERO1 Youth helmet. (Vicis Photo)

Football is still America’s game in U.S. high schools, drawing more than a million athletes each year. But concerns over the lasting effects of concussions have caused youth participation in the sport to dip in recent years.

Vicis, a Seattle startup, wants to help preserve the game for younger athletes with a high-tech helmet that recently ranked first in Virginia Tech’s inaugural youth football helmet safety ratings.

But many youth programs are finding it difficult to pay the $495 price tag, sparking questions of fairness: should the safest helmet only be available to those who can afford it?

Five Seattle-area football programs announced that they would be using the Vicis helmet earlier this month, but several are from the region’s wealthiest areas, such as Bellevue and Mercer Island, Wash.

Just down the street from Vicis’ production facility in Seattle, the Ballard Jr. Football program launched a crowdfunding campaign that aims to raise $50,000 to pay for the helmets, which are designed to mitigate the forces thought to cause concussions. Neighborhood news site MyBallard first reported the fundraising effort, which has taken in more than $8,000 so far.

“We’re definitely not in the best position to pay for [the helmets] or fundraise for them in our community,” said Andrew Muller, the Ballard program’s league president.

Inequality in youth sports has been documented over the past several years, with some pointing to the high cost of youth sports as a reason for declining athletic participation. In Washington State, the governing athletics association recently approved an amendment intended to help low-income schools be more competitive in sports.

But protecting a teenager’s brain adds another layer to the debate.

Justin Pressley, head football coach at Volunteer High School in Church Hill, Tennessee, told GeekWire that the high price point is prohibitive for most teams.

“I actually really love the Vicis helmets. I would love for our kids to get a chance to wear them,” he said in an email. “If it’s truly the safest, it has to be affordable for everyone if they care about the sport of football.”

Pressley estimated that it would cost $30,000 to equip his youth team with Vicis helmets. For high school teams, the cost would be even higher, since older students need to buy the $950 Vicis ZERO1 helmet.

Nearly half of parents say they would sway their kids away from playing football due to concerns over concussions, according to a poll last year from NBC and The Wall Street Journal. Participation in high school football has declined 6.5 percent in the past decade as increasing research links the sport to brain disease.

Another crowdfunding effort in Boca Raton, Fla. aims to purchase Vicis helmets for schools in the area. The effort was spearheaded by Adam Levine, whose son Miles suffered a serious concussion last year during a football game. Several other individual players and teams have turned to websites like GoFundMe to raise money for the helmets.

Levine said that the players at his local school, who live in a wealthy area, are still “wearing the helmets that I wore when I was there.” Levine received more than $50,000 in support to help pay his son’s medical bills, but has only been able to raise $500 toward the new helmets.

“[The Vicis helmets are] really expensive,” he said. “No public school is spending that kind of money on helmets.”

The ZERO1 Youth helmet is more than double the price of the second-rated helmet in the Virginia Tech safety rankings, the Xenith Youth X2E+. But it’s also less expensive than the third-rated helmet, the Schutt Youth F7, which sells for $570.

In Virginia Tech’s lab setting, the Vicis helmet showed a 67 percent reduction in the hypothetical risk of concussion versus the second-place helmet.

Vicis has raised $84 million since spinning out of the University of Washington in 2014. After only two years on the market, 28 NFL teams and 120 NCAA programs now use the company’s helmets.

But the startup’s long-term goal is to offer its products to younger athletes. Vicis first introduced the youth version of its ZERO1 last fall and will begin deliveries of the helmet in June. Vicis’ youth version is nearly half the cost of its ZERO1 adult helmet, which retails for $950.

Tony Titus, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Vicis, said the company has invested $20 million into research and development to create its helmets for youth and adult players.

“The thing we won’t ever sacrifice — and haven’t — is to put the money and the time in up front to design a really good product,” he said. “We want to make our product as accessible as possible, but not at the cost of performance. There’s always a challenge when you innovate that you don’t want to leave anybody behind.”

Vicis has group discounts for youth football programs that can reduce the cost of helmets by as much as 20 percent. It also offers financing programs and has partnered with FundMyTeam, a crowdfunding website for youth sports teams, to offer fundraising services at a reduced rate.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers participated in a $28.5 million funding round last year that coincided with the launch of the youth helmet. “We invested in VICIS because its commitment to player safety — specifically at the youth level — is one we wanted to support,” Rodgers said in a statement at the time.

For Muller, the Ballard football coach who is fundraising to purchase the Vicis helmets, the decision to go with Vicis was “a no-brainer.” Muller’s players have tested helmets for Vicis in the past and have even appeared as models in the company’s marketing.

“I love the game of football. I don’t want to see it go away,” he said. “But I also want to make sure that we’re doing everything possible to make sure our kids are playing the game as safely as possible.”

Vicis said it has sold thousands of the new youth helmets, but most programs won’t place helmet orders until June or July.

“Over time, as we achieve volume and cost savings, we are going to pass that along to make it more accessible,” said Titus.

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