In 1905, after field injuries resulted in at least 18 deaths of college football players, President Teddy Roosevelt phoned up the president of Harvard and asked him to rethink the way the game was played. Football was just too deadly, said Roosevelt, who is considered the game's savior. But now, a century later, after research showing the toll of concussions in the sport, football is again fighting the same deadly reputation.
In the early 1900s, football was made safer by changing its rules. Now the hope is to tackle the mounting concussion problem with new technology—making the sport a little safer without sacrificing all that body slamming that makes it so entertaining for fans.
This spring, the NFL will test out the new ZERO1 helmet, a $1,500 flexible helmet co-developed by the University of Washington and Seattle-based startup VICIS that researchers hope will reduce the chances of a player sustaining a concussion.
Neither the causes or effects of concussions are widely understood, but researchers do know that they generally occur when a person sustains an impact that causes the brain to bang around in the skull, straining its tissues. Think of the head as an egg and the brain as a yolk, and then imagine what happens to the yolk when a 300-pound linebacker crashes into the offensive line at ultra high speeds.
The ZERO1 has a flexible outer shell, an inner core that's designed to act like shock absorbers, and customized inner lining that fits snugly against the head. The idea is to slow the acceleration of force so that by the time it reaches the brain (or the yolk) nothing moves around too much.
Over the past few years, other companies have taken a similar approach to helmet redesign, with helmets that seek to displace the force of the blow or reduce the impact for the part of the head that takes the most hits.
Before your hopes get too high that you'll soon be able to watch football without feeling guilty, know that there is not evidence yet to know whether this technology will actually work to reduce concussions. With the Super Bowl coming up this weekend, Federal Trade Commission chairman Edith Ramirez took to Twitter Friday to remind the public that the FTC has "scrutinized concussion protection claims for a variety of products, including football helmets and mouthguards" and that "there is no helmet or device on the market proven to prevent concussions."
There are other approaches, such as changing the stadium environment. Football safety engineering firm Viconic Sporting makes an impact-absorbing layer that sits beneath a stadium's artificial turf.
But the most interesting advances in football safety technology may be concussion detection technology. Like a stroke, concussions require rapid assessment. Physical rest and "brain rest" can help to lessen the neurologic damage. If they play again too soon while still in recovery, a second hit can result in something called Second Impact Syndrome, which can bring on severe neurologic damage or even death. The quicker a concussion is diagnosed, the better the chances of not exacerbating the damage.
Usually, a concussion is diagnosed by checking how well a player can see and how coherent he is. At Stanford, researchers are experimenting with using virtual reality to help diagnose concussions quickly and accurately. After a hit, a player dons an Oculus Rift headset, while software analyzes a player's eye movements. While the player follows a dot around on the screen, an assessment of his cognitive function is made. Erratic eye movements are a pretty good sign that a player's brain may have taken a hit. The researchers believe that the VR software helps to analyze eye movement with greater accuracy than other existing methods. (The software is currently on trial with several college teams.)
Other efforts have focused on developing smartphone and tablet apps that can test a player's cognitive function, like Sideline Impact, which uses a five-minute questionnaire to test concentration, short term memory and orientation and document potential markers of a concussion.
Concussions are complicated, nuanced injuries, which makes preventing, diagnosing and treating them challenging. But amid mounting pressure, the NFL has poured money and resources into the problem. In 2013, it launched the Head Health Initiative, a four-year, $65-million effort to detect and treat traumatic brain injury (both the ZERO1 and Viconic's astroturf underlay came out of the initiative). And it donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health to focus on brain trauma research. The League has also enacted dozens of rule changes to reduce concussion risk.
Data released last month showed that players sustained 271 concussions in 2015, up 31.6 percent from 2014. Part of this, the League said, is that it's taking concussions more seriously. It claims it's improved the diagnosis procedure, evaluating more players and sidelining them more often if they show any signs of head injury.
Still, it's increasingly fashionable to call for the game to be abolished. Football could really use a new savior, maybe this time someone from Silicon Valley instead of the White House.