The usually bustling facilities have sat still and silent, yet they are anything but empty.
Crammed into bins, racks and shelves, helmets and shoulder pads have collected dust during the shutdown amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Deadlines draw nearer and pressure mounts at the nation’s most prominent athletic equipment manufacturing and reconditioning plants.
Normally, this time of year is a peak period of production for companies like Riddell, Xenith, Schutt and other smaller operations.
These companies repair, recondition and recertify nearly 2 million football helmets every offseason, according to the National Athletic Equipment Reconditioners Association, the organizing body that works to reduce the risk of injury for athletes by overseeing the standards and practices of companies that produce and recertify football, lacrosse, softball and baseball helmets and face guards.
Their football clientele include NFL and college programs, all the way down to the tiniest youth leagues.
Social distancing and crowd-control concerns greatly factor into the dilemma of when college and pro football can return.
It’s unclear if many schools even will open by the end of summer. But the halted state of the reconditioning facilities poses an additional threat to the on-time start of football in the amateur ranks. (Pro and college programs aren’t impacted by this predicament because NFL helmets already have been reconditioned by now, and most colleges have multiple sets of helmets for spring and fall use.)
If equipment facilities can’t get back up and running at nearly full force within the coming weeks, many high school, middle school and youth league football players might not have helmets needed to practice and play.
Each year, during the winter and spring, helmets are reconditioned and recertified to ensure optimal safety and then are sent back to the football programs in June and July. But equipment facilities now are bracing for production logjams and delays, which prompted the NAERA to warn National Federation of High School officials that football season start dates may need to be postponed.
“I think it might be smart to push the seasons’ starts back to September for high schools rather than August, like we see in a lot of cases,” NAERA executive director Tony Beam told USA TODAY Sports. “That would give everyone some more time. Because one thing is for certain: they definitely can’t play without helmets.”
Beam wants to see football return as badly as anyone. He also coaches at Palmyra High School in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. But while holding onto optimism, he’s also a realist.
“All of our workers in our industry want to be back to work, and they will work their butts off to get the work done in a sanitary, quick and effective manner,” he said. “That’s not a question. But it’s going to take some time. I would say, we’re not even halfway through our normal production.”
At the conclusion of each football season, representatives from each company visit their clients to collect the helmets and ship them back to the manufacturers. At the facilities, the face masks, decals and all hardware are removed from helmets. Internal parts are inspected and removed for cleaning. Helmet shells are inspected for defects and tested for cracks. If ruled defective, they are subsequently discarded. Those that are approved are buffed, sand-blasted, washed, painted, reassembled and put through a multi-step testing system before being recertified and packaged for shipment back to customers.
The industry’s chances of meeting its deadlines appeared bleak two weeks ago. However, as many states throughout the country began taking steps toward reopening certain businesses, positive developments have followed for the equipment companies.
Riddell’s facilities began ramping back up in the past week as Ohio authorities relaxed business restrictions. Meanwhile, Xenith’s Detroit-based headquarters was slated to resume operations next week.
There still are challenges. Due to government-mandated staffing restrictions, fewer workers than usual are permitted in facilities at a given time. However, companies across the country were planning to add extra shifts to help try to get up to speed.
“I feel way better now,” Beam said. “I couldn’t say that two weeks ago, but today, as I see the biggest companies, Riddell and Schutt and Xenith are starting to get going again, I feel encouraged that we’re all going to get back up and running.”
Because some areas of the country might not reinstitute previous working conditions as early as others, equipment companies also may receive extra wiggle room when it comes to fulfilling the orders of some customers. But determining those timelines requires extra communication.
“Riddell has been proactive in communicating with our customers throughout the COVID-19 health crisis regarding the status of our operations and potential delays with reconditioning and new equipment orders,” Riddell vice president of marketing and communications Erin Griffin told USA TODAY Sports. “In fact, we’ve enlisted their support to advance our reopening plans and inspire our Riddell team members to reinforce the vital role our organization plays in readying football programs to return to the field.
“We do encourage football programs to consider reconditioning when determining return to football timelines. Riddell remains optimistic we can deliver equipment to football programs on time.”
Meanwhile, Xenith CEO Ryan Sullian shared similar optimism.
“I think we all recognize that reconditioning is even more important this year than ever,” Sullivan said on Friday, one day after learning his company’s production facility would be able to open on Monday. “At Xenith, we have always been committed to providing the highest quality all-inclusive recon service in the industry, and we are gearing up to return to work and get these helmets ready for a new season. We are confident that we will be able to fulfill all existing orders before the season begins and look forward to seeing our athletes back on the field.”
This year, “on-time” starts to seasons might have a different meaning. Best-case scenarios still feature tight turnarounds. Rather than receiving their equipment with a few months to spare before the start of practices, schools might receive products with a week or two prior to games.
But even if the helmets arrive in the 11th hour, coaches and the equipment suppliers will likely consider that a win given experiences from this spring.
“We as coaches want to be out on the field with our kids, but everyone has to accept that things are going to be different this year,” Beam said. “But what’s very important is that we are going to be getting football back. That’s what’s important, both for society, psychologically, and for the economy.”