Solving the NFL Concussion Crisis

By Cody Laska
Technology & Innovation Writer
nfl
Only a few days removed from the Super Bowl and conclusion of the 2016-2017 NFL season, the league still faces a glaring problem that it does not seem to have a solution for: concussions and their long term impact. While the case that the National Football League Player Association brought to light seems to have faded to the background, in which a 2014 settlement resulted in $760 million being paid out to various players that now suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) among other things, the issue is still prevalent. And while the cringe-worthy, crushing helmet to helmet hits that the league has set out to heavily penalize perpetrators both in game and off the field for, there is an issue far more dangerous: it is referred to a “sub-concussive event.”

These are the type of hits that a player will experience throughout a game: while blocking, making a legal tackle, even hitting the ground after jumping up for a catch. While they might not send the trainers onto the field with a stretcher, these impacts destroy countless neurons and with their repeated repetition can cause the same amount of long term damage as a crushing head shot.

Yet with nine billion in revenue and teams playing stadiums worth a few billion dollars, the league cannot seem to figure what causes these concussions-let alone a way to prevent them. In comes accelerometers- yes, the thing in your phone, air bags and intercontinental ballistic missiles used to track angle, force and impact.

The primary manufacturer of helmets for the league, Riddell, believes that if all helmets were equipped with such technology they would be able to prevent players from developing CTE or another neurological disability through a cumulative effect or even high impact collisions.

Enter a partnership between the University of Texas and Riddell. Using a software named InSite, player helmets are outfitted with sensors that record data that can be viewed remotely on the sidelines by coaches. In a quote from Thad Ide, senior vice president of research and product development at Riddell, “It’s an extra piece of information and an extra set of eyes on the field that they [the coaches] wouldn’t have otherwise.” The sensor tracks collisions and impacts in order to solve the probability of the player suffering a head injury; either from one hit or a cumulative effect.

Unfortunately it does not look as if this technology will be making it to the league any time soon. In 2013 two franchises participated in a study to test the effectiveness of the accelerometer technology. The results of the program created a data sample of 11,000 impacts varying from high to low intensity, but the league called off the study claiming that the sensors were not accurately reporting the data.

The study did change the game all though it backfired into the leagues face: the kick off adjustment. The report found that most traumatic brain injury occurred during kick off in which players that tend to be fighting for their place on the team sprint full speed at one another and try to cause the biggest hit to solidify their spot on the roster.

To prevent these injuries the league decided to allow the touch back, when the returner kneels in the end-zone effectively downing himself, to bring the ball out to the 25 yard line instead of the 20 to discourage a return and collisions. To secure more defendable field position, teams now intentionally kick the ball short of the end zone to force the return man to run out and get hit; a tactic brought on by New England Patriots’ Bill Belicheck.

While the league hopes to revive the accelerometer program it looks like for now they will be sticking to trying to adjust the rules to address player safety issues. Only time, and the players, will be able to tell what strategy is the most effective.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, February 7th print edition.

Contact Cody Laska at
cody.laska@student.shu.edu

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