Technology can't save football players' brains

Technology can't save football players' brains
From Engadget - February 2, 2018

Tregg added that although the Duerson Act is solely about protecting players from physical hits, technology can be key to keeping better track of when someone's been hit and accurately measuring impact levels, particularly around the head. Companies like Prevent Biometrics are already working on products designed to address these issues. With the Head Impact Monitor System (HIMS), for example, Prevent has created a sensor-laden mouth guard that can detect collisions immediately, the idea being that this would prompt players and coaches to seek medical treatment on the sidelines.

If the HIMS works as advertised, it has the potential to substitute methods such as observational tests, which have proved time and time again to be ineffective. Those traditional diagnostic methods often fail because it's tough to convince a player to get off the field and at times, team doctors do not do their due diligence, as their priorities lie with the club rather than the individual.

The NFL has tried to address this by implementing a concussion protocol that employs independent doctors on the field, but the system is not perfect. Chris Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, called the protocol a "fraud" last November after an incident in which Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett took a helmet-to-helmet hit during a game. Brissett was allowed to continue playing, despite going limp and showing what Nowinski called one of the "clearest concussions signs of the season."

Helmet makers like Riddell, meanwhile, have been working on solutions of their own. The company's Precision-Fit tech is used to make customized helmets for each player. To do so, Riddell scans the surface of a player's head and uses that image and exact surface to create a helmet that fits him exclusively. That can in turn create better protection, since literally every curve is covered.

In addition, Riddell has also developed its InSite training tool, a helmet-based sensor system that can measure impact data and upload it to a server where coaches and athletic trainers can view the results. Riddell emphasizes that the idea behind InSite is not to be a diagnostic tool or a medical device but rather to simply act as a monitoring system that can help staff proactively reduce the head-impact exposure of players. It could, for instance, show if a player's hitting technique is poor or if his playing style needs to be adjusted.

InSite is not being used in the NFL right now, but there's a chance we will see it make its way to the league in the near future. For now, Riddell says 20 players from the Philadelphia Eagles will be wearing Precision-Fit helmets when they face the New England Patriots this weekend during Super Bowl LII. You may also see players using the VICIS Zero1 that night, a helmet designed by engineers and neurosurgeons that garnered investment from the NFL for being one of the most impact-reducing products for its players. The Zero1 features multiple layers of foam that are meant to slow down impact forces and mitigate collisions by offering players the widest possible field of view.

The NFL has made more than 50 league changes that are intended to reduce the amount of contact players have to deal with.

Innovation in protective gear is one of the areas the NFL has been heavily investing in since 2016, when it launched Play Smart, Play Safe, an initiative intended to drive progress in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of head injuries. As part of that, the league has pledged $100 million to the cause, promising to support independent medical research and engineering advancements that help protect players and make the sport generally safer.

Of the $100 million the league has committed, $60 million will go to the league's Engineering Roadmap. It first plans to borrow successful injury-prevention techniques from the auto industry to create a robust head-protection program for players. It then plans to develop accurate impact sensors and work on helmet tech that can make hits less excruciating. Last but not least, it will create incentives for companies to use this research to create a new breed of protective equipment.

Most importantly, perhaps, the NFL has made more than 50 league changes that are intended to reduce the amount of contact players have to deal with, especially when they are not playing actual games.

"They make billions of dollars and pay people a lot of money, and a lot of [the] decisions that they are going to make along these lines are tied to entertainment."


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