There’s no getting around the reality that football is an inherently violent game. It’s been proven that not massive head-on hits, but the every-play contact that the game couldn’t exist without, is the the primary cause of football-linked brain disorders. But this inextricable link hasn’t stopped the National Football League from looking to the tech sector to mitigate the blow to the game’s reputation that has come with a better understanding of football’s traumatic effect on the human brain.
Players have been understandably put on edge by the increasing knowledge about football’s potential long-term health effects, and the dialogue has led to innovation. Fans may have noticed players sporting a larger version of the traditional helmet. It’s the Vicis Zero1, which was designed to mitigate the effects of the near-constant contact that football necessitates for most of its players.
Other innovations including a pressurized, lightweight collar have been adopted disparately, with the collar being adopted by one of the league’s most prominent and physical players, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. United Neuroscience has even announced that they are working on a vaccine that would protect the brain from the onset of CTE, which if successful would be a potential life-saver for the game and the NFL.
But the NFL is looking for even more ideas. Remain skeptical about their motives if you are so inclined, but even PR-motivated safety moves are a step in the right direction. This Sunday, on the game’s biggest stage, the league will roll out its 1st & Future initiative, which hears pitches from tech companies aimed at ‘advancing player health, safety, and performance’, rewarding the victors with cash and Super Bowl tickets. This Super Bowl Sunday, representatives from the NFL and Mayo Clinic will gather at the Guthrie Theater in the game’s host city, Minneapolis, to hear the finalists’ pitches, with the winners in each category – protective equipment, new therapies to speed recovery, and technology to improve athletic performance – receiving a $50,000 check and two tickets to the game.
There’s no word on whether the league would then help to develop the technology, though that is presumably what the check would go toward.
One of the finalists is a former member of one of the teams playing in the game. Zoltan Mesko was a punter for the New England Patriots not long ago, and now he and co-founder Ben Rizzo’s Exero Labs will be pitching their take on the new generation of safer football helmets. Their product is a device that attaches to the outside of the helmet, deforming on impact to diffuse the effect of a blow to the head. While it’s a good idea, players in any sport have traditionally been slow to adopt anything that might make them standout or reduce the cool factor of their look, even if it means maintaining a greater risk to their safety.
The Patriots’ opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, will also have tangential representation, with Philadelphia-based EyeGuide being among the finalists. The company specializes in a neurological test that would provide more sure-fire concussion detection mechanisms that are so blatantly not currently in place. No concussion looks the same, therefore they are difficult for doctors to diagnose.
By having 1,200 data points collected in just 10 seconds, this device is very powerful to help flag that there may be an issue and it may warrant further clinical intervention or medical care, EyeGuide CEO Patrick Carney said.
All three of the finalists in the protective equipment category have taken on the cause of enhancing the safety provided by helmets, and rightfully so. Head trauma is, no doubt, the greatest existential threat to the game.
EyeGuide falls in the “therapies to speed recovery” category, along with Cartilage Repair Systems, which uses a stem cell-based recovery system, and RecoverX, a smart phone-controlled cooling and heating pack.
In the category of “technology to improve athletic performance”, Green Bay-based Xensr and Canadian company Curv stood out. They both specialize in sports-related data tracking that will give players, coaches, and trainers more insight into how they can improve their training and playing methods.
Time will tell if this newfound reliance upon tech to help reduce the damage to players yields tangible results. We may never be able to measure that, but as long as humans continue to play the game, it’s necessary that the NFL be an example of how technology can help make the game safer. Hopefully, the model will eventually trickle down to college, high school, and youth leagues, as the NFL level may constitute ‘too late’ for many of the players who have already done irreparable damage in their younger years.