The NFL is learning a lot from a bunch of dummies.
Using the same crash test simulations that make cars safer, the NFL is using the dummies implemented by the auto industry to learn more about football collisions in an effort to one day make the game safer.
If you’ve ever stood on the sideline of an NFL field, the comparison to cars is apt; the speed and force of a pro football game is akin to standing on the side of a highway, with players whizzing by and crashing into opponents no different than automobiles on a road.
An even better way to think about it is that NFL football right now is where the auto industry was in the 1970s. Back then, car makers knew much less about auto safety and impact science as they do today. The results of their research have made driving much safer than it once was.
Over the last 40 years, cars have been made safer with better seat belts, padded dashboards, airbags, and more sophisticated engineering. In 1979, there were 22.7 crash deaths per 100,000 people, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. By 2015, that rate was cut in half, to 10.9, thanks largely to what scientists learned from those crash test dummies.
Those same dummies are now being used to make football safer. Last year the NFL used dummies to measure on-field collisions. The data compiled during those tests continues to be implemented in simulated laboratory tests and is also being used to create safer equipment, says Dr. Jeff Crandall, chair of the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee’s Engineering Subcommittee.
Crandall has a background in auto safety research and through an improved understanding of how impacts occur on the field, the NFL hopes to help entrepreneurs and innovators make the game safer for brain injuries. Every documented concussion is dissected on video and more than 100 variables, including helmet type, play call, impact location, are charted in a massive database the league shares with equipment manufacturers.
This effort is part of the NFL’s “Play Smart. Play Safe.” initiative established last year to “drive progress in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of head injuries, enhance medical protocols and further improve the way the game is taught and played by all who love it,” according to the league. "Play Smart. Play Safe." is throwing a ton of money at football’s brain injury problem: the NFL pledged $100 million to make the game safer with $60 million of that reserved for what is known as the Engineering Roadmap, with the remaining $40M earmarked for medical research.
The Engineering Roadmap is almost like the NFL’s version of “Shark Tank,” part of which is a series of Head Health Tech Challenges designed to marry the big ideas of private innovators and academics with the research the NFL is compiling from actual game collisions and the ones it creates in a lab. GE and Under Armour also sponsor the challenges.
The program is overseen by Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety, who famously made headlines last year speaking before congress when he became the first NFL executive to acknowledge a link between football and brain injuries like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE.
Just how safe football can ever get is up for debate. According to Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered CTE in 2002 and whose research and life story was the subject of the Will Smith movie “Concussion,” smoking is actually safer for kids than playing football because, he says, lungs can repair themselves after you stop smoking but the human brain can never fix itself after sustaining a concussion.
The NFL has had three Head Health Challenges that focus on cultivating advances in material science and protective equipment. The challenges received more than 1,000 submissions from entrepreneurs and innovators, Miller said. In the first round, he said, the NFL funded around 30 new initiatives that promise to improve helmet and protective equipment construction.
One of the products the NFL chose to invest in through the Head Health Challenges is Vicis, which makes helmets that are designed to lessen the impact on players’ skulls. The Zero1 helmets are built with four layers of protection including an outer shell that “deforms like a car bumper on impact, slowing impact forces before they reach the head,” according to Vicis CEO Dave Marver.
The Zero1 has performed better than any other helmet on the market in testing conducted by the NFL. More than 50 NFL players, including Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, are wearing them this season, but the helmets are designed to only limit concussions, not prevent them entirely.
Earlier this year, Houston linebacker Brian Cushing suffered a concussion wearing one, proving that even with advanced technology, brain injuries may never be totally eradicated from football.
“Equipment innovations like the Zero1 can make a big difference as part of a multifaceted approach that includes better tackling techniques, rule changes, and increased vigilance,” Marver said. “Traditional helmets were designed to prevent skull fracture. The Zero1 borrows proven innovations from automotive safety that reduce impact forces more effectively than traditional helmets. … And, it’s the first of many innovations in head protection you can expect from Vicis.”
And these innovations don’t come cheap. While an average helmet sells for anywhere from $60 to a couple hundred bucks, the Zero1 sells for a whopping $1,500.
Vicis is just one of many helmet innovators getting assistance from pro football. Clearly, the NFL sees advances in protective equipment leading to a safer game. Other Tech Challenge winners include VyaTek Sports and Guardian Innovations, which won grants from the NFL to galvanize existing helmets. VyaTek is developing shock-absorbing pads that fit inside helmets, while Guardian is working on a helmet cap designed to do the same thing.
Winners of the second Tech Challenge include 2nd Skull, which makes a skull cap that reduces impact forces; Baytech Products, which is developing a multi-component helmet system concept; and Windpact, led by former NFL cornerback Shawn Springs, which is refining its Crash Cloud, a helmet liner system.
The third Tech Challenge accepted entries through the end of September.
Based on all of this research and development, Crandall said the goal is to have a new and improved all-purpose helmet developed after three years and a position-specific helmet after five years.
However, helmets do not prevent concussions, says Omalu, but in actuality may increase the risk of them because players can “weaponize” their heads, using them to hit opponents. Also, he said, helmets make a child’s head bigger, heavier and add more energy to collisions, all of which can increase the chances of sustaining a brain injury.
“Are we making progress? Of course, we are,” Omalu said. “But you’re asking me if fire can be made safer.”
The NFL isn’t just focused on helmets. Viconic, a company developing an impact-absorbing layer for underneath synthetic turf, was also named a Challenge winner.
Last year, Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, one of the game’s toughest and best, was carted off the field with tears streaming down his cheeks and his brain scrambled from another concussion. He had missed nine games over two years because of concussions, and when he was taken off the field on that cart, he put a terrifying face on the NFL’s brain injury problem.
This season, Kuechly is wearing an innovative device called the Q Collar, which its creators believe can cut the risk of concussions. The idea behind the collar, which wraps around the back of the neck and puts slight pressure on blood flow, increases the blood volume in the brain to create a cushion that may limit its movement inside the skull. Concussions are caused when the brain bounces off the inside of the skull, and by producing more fluid between it and the brain, researchers think just may limit concussions.
The Q Collar, designed by Q30 Innovations, has enlisted former Giant Carl Banks and former New York Rangers goalie John Davidson as advisors.
The Q Collar
Dr. David Smith, who invented the collar, said the idea came from woodpeckers, which are known to bash their heads against a tree and come away without any negative effects on their brains. Woodpeckers use their tongues to wrap around its head and neck on the inside prior to impact, applying pressure to the jugular while pecking away. The Q Collar was born from that bird-brained idea.
But how successful is the Q Collar?
Kuechly, the lone NFL player wearing the experimental device this season, suffered his third known concussion Oct. 12 on Thursday Night Football against the Eagles.
There is no college more closely connected to football than Notre Dame. And while the school has produced seven Heisman Trophy winners, its storied history also includes the tales of Pete Duranko and Dave Duerson.
Duranko, a defensive end for the Irish in the mid-1960s, contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and died in 2011 at age 67. Duerson put a gun to his chest and pulled the trigger, a method of suicide used by players such as Chargers Hall of Famer Junior Seau, in order to preserve the brain for examination. Postmortem studies of both Duerson’s and Duranko’s brains showed the existence of CTE.
In response to these sad events, a group of influential Notre Dame alumni has been working behind the scenes in an effort to push the school to become a leader in concussion prevention and research. The group raised $300,000 earmarked for concussion treatment. Part of that grant went into participating in a new technology some researchers believe will help to identify concussions in real time.
SyncThink is a startup that’s developing technology that uses eye movements to diagnose potential concussions. Using SyncThink, teams can pull a player off the field immediately after a head hit and monitor their eyes to tell if he is disoriented, a telltale symptom of someone who has suffered a concussion.
The science behind the technology hinges on an element of predictive timing and physical orientation researchers believe is commonly disrupted by concussions.
“In the concussion space, no one has been able to provide hard metrics for making decisions about the status of the athlete,” SyncThink Chief Customer Officer Scott Anderson said. “We are able to evaluate how well the athlete orients himself to time and space.”
Anderson said the disruptive SyncThink, which is now used at Notre Dame, Texas, Stanford, Iowa State, and Florida, among others, “takes the guesswork out of determining if an athlete is impaired, if the athlete should go back out on the field or not.”
Athletes are fitted with a pair of virtual reality goggles modified with cameras and sensors. Players are asked to follow a red dot inside with their eyes. A healthy brain should be able to track the dot closely. An athlete shaken up or disoriented from a collision will have difficulty following the dot. Every eye movement is recorded and can be used to not only diagnose disorientation but also to chart the process of recovery.
“There is a specific biological signal of someone becoming disinhibited through this test or when they have a concussion; their eyes jump ahead of the target,” Anderson said. “They’ve lost the ability to hold back the motor response. We’re able to capture this with our cameras and prove the person has become disinhibited, and as a result, has become disoriented in time and space and can’t protect himself.”
The technology has not yet reached the NFL, but Anderson indicated the company may be poised for explosive growth in the coming weeks.
“We’re a startup,” he said. “We’re just entering the space. There’s overwhelming interest we can’t keep up with. It’s a matter of time before this is on every sideline.”
Analytics and New Data
Since 2004, helmet manufacturers have been trying to use accelerometers to signal too-hard head hits. Accelerometers measure speed and force and are the same technology used to deploy airbags. In 2013, two NFL teams tested the technology but the league eventually abandoned it citing its unreliability.
But data collected by accelerometers was the basis behind the NFL moving the kickoff up to the 35-yard-line, reducing the number of returned kicks, one of almost 50 rules changes designed to make the game safer. The results of using the 35-yard-line has been a 40 percent decrease in the number of concussions reported on kickoffs since the change, Miller said.
In addition to new technology, protective equipment, medical research, and overall awareness of the lurking danger of brain injuries in football, another component of making the game safer may come from teaching how to play the game better. Enter Atavus, a Seattle-based startup that wants to help teams refine tackling and develop what it calls “instinctive athletes.”
The theory is that efficient tackling not only creates better tacklers; it produces safer tacklers, too.
“Thankfully for the game of football and for us, the technique that puts you in position to create a dominant tackle and puts you in a position to optimize power and control is also the same technique and body position that keeps you in a safer head position,” said Atavus Director of Football Operations Kerry Carter, a former NFL player.
Atavus gives coaches a better understanding of which players tackle better than others and is just one element in overhauling safety in football. The Seattle Seahawks and a handful of college teams have experimented with the monitoring technology.
Concussions may never be taken out of football entirely, but it seems that the game will get safer for head injuries only through the implementation and combination of many of these ideas. In addition to galvanizing helmets, the road to a safer game of football is also paved by science and technology.
Football safety won’t just come from better gear or greater awareness. Total safety may never be achieved in a violent collision sport, but the NFL may get a little safer for players through the confluence of many of these ideas. From protective equipment to softer turf to better medical monitoring to the implementation of new and undiscovered technology, the game can only get safer than it has been.
Cars were once far deadlier than they are today. Using a lot of the same science that made our roads safer for drivers, the NFL hopes to make the field safer for athletes.
“The rules changes, technology, scientific, research, and advancement are all going to lead to a safer game and one that advances player health and safety over time,” Miller said.
There is no denying that playing football can be hazardous to your health and to your brain.
However, the game can be safer. And the NFL is relying on a couple of dummies, and some very smart entrepreneurs and innovators, to do that.
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