The NFL, and really organized tackle football everywhere, will have to figure out ways to improve the concussion epidemic at some point. Maybe the answer lies in technology.
Helmet manufacturers are going beyond just improving the design and components (though, they're doing that too). They're trying their best to help training staffs identify when a player has a concussion, through technology.
Riddell, which provides a majority of the helmets for NFL players, thinks its InSite Impact Response System can help at all levels. Basically, a five-point sensor pad in the helmet measures the impact of hits, and when a hit or sequence of hits passes a certain threshold the athletic trainer on the sideline is sent an alert on a cell-phone sized device. The equipment doesn't diagnose concussions, Riddell said (no company is going to want to take on that liability) and when an alert is sent, it doesn't necessarily mean a player is pulled from the game or the game is stopped. But athletic training staffs can keep a better eye on that player if the alert is received. It's simply another tool athletic training staffs can use to recognize if a player has a concussion. The InSite system was first used last October, and 2014 will be its first full season.
This is the kind of thing that teams or players or helmet manufacturers never worried about years ago, but we've entered a different era of tackle football. Similar systems are also being developed by other companies like Reebok and Battle Sports.
"We think this sort of technology, where helmets are used to gather information, is the future of football," Riddell senior vice president of research and product development Thad Ide said. "I can't tell you if it'll be five, seven, 10 years, but we think it'll be the norm for the helmet to be equipped with this technology."
Riddell's system is based off its Head Impact Telemetry System, or HITS. That system has been used by a few schools, including Virginia Tech and North Carolina, and provided information from helmet sensors and software on hits and concussions. The InSite system provides real time alerts, and Ide said it will be much more affordable and affordable for all levels, down to youth football. Some teams have already used it. The University of Arkansas, for one example, used it during spring practice this year.
The NFL can afford practically any technology, so it will be interesting to see if the league embraces Riddell's system or any similar one. One of the struggles the league has is that players don't always like to report concussion symptoms. A concussion means they're out of the game, might miss more games, and in a violent sport that offers almost no guaranteed contracts, the fear of losing their job is real for players. But, if the system works as it should, the new technology would presumably keep the players safer.
"We're giving them a piece of information they wouldn't normally have," Ide said. "I think this type of technology could have tremendous value at all levels, NFL included."
There is constant research into improving the helmet itself, and how to make it as safe as possible. Some teams used Riddell's new Speed Flex helmets during offseason practices.
It's impossible to eliminate concussions from football but maybe technology (and rules changes, and awareness) can at least help a bit.
"It is getting safer in ways people don't realize," Ide said.
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