Sports Law • Risk Management

NCAA New Rule Regarding Pole Vault Helmets

Not so long ago a pole vaulter who wished to use protective headgear had few options. Vaulters resorted to wearing equipment, such as skating helmets, that were neither tested nor specifically recommended for use in pole vaulting. However, over the last decade there has been increasing concern and discussion about creating standardized pole vaulting headgear in order to minimize head injuries and to prevent the death of athletes’ who hit their head during a vault. Such widespread concern for pole vaulters’ safety has prompted some significant changes in the last five years.

The first significant change occurred in 2006, when manufacturing standards for pole vault helmets were established by ASTM International (formerly American Society for Testing and Materials) (see http://www.astm.org/SNEWS/MAY_2006/vault_may06.html). Following a few highly publicized deaths of athletes in the vault, ASTM International agreed to propose a standard for manufacturers to meet when producing helmets for vaulters. Although even if a manufacturer would use ASTM’s standards, it is not expected to guarantee that a vaulter would be protected from all harm. Instead, it was suggested in a 2002 article posted on ASTM’s website, a helmet designed for pole vaulters may prevent or reduce injury depending on the type of vaulting incident that occurs (see http://www.astm.org/SNEWS/NOVEMBER_2002/helmets_nov02.html). Nonetheless, some protection, or protection in certain incidents, can still be regarded as a significant change in 2006. Following manufacturer production of the standardized equipment, pole vaulters would have a choice in protective headgear designed for their sport.

The most recent change has been handed down by the NCAA's Playing Rules Oversight Panel. On July 19th of this year, the NCAA instructed on its website that schools must require that any helmets elected to be used by collegiate vaulters must be “specifically designed for pole vault competition and manufactured to comply with [ASTM] standards.” Although helmet use is still an optional piece of equipment, if the equipment is used, the helmet must meet the requisite ASTM standards. Following these significant changes, it would not be surprising if state high school athletic associations were to adopt an identical rule in the near future. In light of these recent changes and in anticipation of further changes for different levels of competition, all coaches and schools should begin to ensure that any pole vault helmets being used are ASTM compliant.