Technology

How Science And Engineering Are Fighting To Save Football


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Watch a close-up of an elbow contorting as a pitcher spins a curveball. Think about the pounds of pressure at play when a 280-pound center comes down hard with a rebound. Witness someone run into the human equivalent of a brick wall with shoulder pads on. For the spectator’s vantage point, it’s clear: Human bodies aren’t made to do these things, and yet they do. Over and over again.

Aches and pains are a given for athletes. Surgeries to mend tears and replace joints are commonplace and continue to improve thanks to medical science. But these ailments pale in comparison to the burden brought by head trauma, specifically when it comes to former football players.

The National Football League’s lengthy concussion crisis has brought with it a hefty cost. Former players with a history of concussions and who often have (or are suspected of having) a brain disease called CTE (which can only be diagnosed after death) have suffered memory loss, mood swings, and hurt themselves and/or others. The result has been a wave of expensive lawsuits against the NCAA, the NFL, and Riddell (the NFL’s formerly exclusive helmet manufacturer).

The fallout hasn’t gone unnoticed by the public. A 2016 UMass poll reported that 94 percent of respondents said that sports-related head injuries qualified as a “public health issue” and 65 percent said that it is a “major problem” — so, obviously there’s concern and moral outrage out there. And as more and more heartbreaking stories of fallen heroes and dashed lives come out, it will get larger.

Over the last few years, players have retired early, citing current or prospective medical concerns. And perhaps more worrying for the future of the game, dire headlines (and scientific studies) about on-field deaths and long-term neurological effects have led some parents (and former players) to say that they won’t let their kids play football at any level.

Medical concerns and declining ratings (Due to a changing media landscape? A lackluster product? Politics and protests? Concussion headlines? All of the above?) don’t signify the looming death of football. Sure, the sport is limping right now, but the game is probably too big to ever fail completely, thanks to its role as a kind of secular church for millions and its place as a flame from which many industries draw their light (no matter what Papa John’s decides to do with its relationship with the NFL). But the ability to hang tough through this storm doesn’t mean the NFL and organized football don’t have a moral responsibility to protect players at every level. And it doesn’t mean that the game is immune to the long-term impact of bad PR and the crystallizing belief that its inherent violence makes it unsafe and, maybe, unwatchable in a crowded field of entertainment options.

Football is caught within an evolutionary cycle — whether those in and around the game like it or not — and the solution seems clear: somehow, the NFL and the NCAA need to find a way to move forward with a fun and compelling product while simultaneously calming worries about player safety. To be sure, it’s a hard needle to thread, but it can be done. The key is the thriving relationship between football and science.

An Old Idea And A New Solution

The ProCap urethane foam helmet cover is a reminder that there have been attempts at innovation and experimentation with force reduction. It just never got the chance to fully live up to its seeming potential due, in part, to the league’s past stubbornness toward change. (And their financial success, which allowed them to ignore innovation.)

Invented by Bert Straus, the stationary half-inch thick add-on stood out for its comparatively unique look when it debuted in the late 1980s, drawing “Great Gazoo” catcalls for those who rocked the helmet accessory. Oft-concussed players like 49ers offensive lineman Steve Wallace and Bills safety Mark Kelso swore by it, though.

They also credited it with keeping them on the field — though that didn’t mean that the ProCap was anywhere close to overcoming its bulbous design to gain wide acceptance. We’ll never know how much difference the ProCap could have made for players back then (and on their lives now) since reports in Bloomberg Business and The Atlantic indicate that it was run out of the NFL (and the youth market).

Riddell effectively signed the ProCap’s death warrant, stating that Riddell’s warranty would be negated if their helmets were modified with the use of the ProCap. Riddell maintained that wearers of the ProCap were at a greater risk for neck and spinal injuries, because of the concern that two padded helmets hitting one another would maintain contact long enough to put players in danger of “axial loading,” spinal damage caused by a blow to the top of the head. Despite studies showing that this was not the case, the warning went to youth sports equipment dealers and college customers, and the ProCap all but disappeared. Other helmet innovations met similar fates, as the league, Riddell, and the league’s then-laughable concussion committee disparaged and denigrated these new models.

Eventually, the ProCap became ProTech from a company called Defend Your Head. Company president (and former New York Jets offensive-lineman) John Roman stresses the long-ago connection to the ProCap when commenting to Uproxx and says the concerns about neck injuries that were sparked by the NFL’s warnings are “fake news.”

“There were studies that showed that axial loading was not an issue. Dr. Richard Nelson, the nationally recognized biomechanics engineer, who founded Penn State University’s biomechanics lab, proved that the ProCap was not only safe in the suggested loading conditions but in some loading angles — safer.”

Nelson’s name pops up frequently if you dig into the dispute between ProCap, Riddel, and the NFL in the mid-’90s, specifically for his rejection of the NFL concussion committee’s interpretation of a study, done by his lab, that led to those warnings.

While the ProTech seems to share many of the same principles with the ProCap, Roman is happy to illustrate the differences between the two. According to him, the ProTech covers more than 90 percent plus of the helmet surface. The ProCap, which wrapped helmets like a crown, only covered 40 percent of the helmet. Roman adds that the ProTech’s soft surface is designed to “make helmet collisions more glancing” and that it has “a unique attachment system that guides force away upon impact.” He says the aesthetics are better, too.

The Guardian Helmet Cap is another ProCap descendant, albeit an unaffiliated one. Like ProCap, they’re not immune to the effects of the (disputed) neck injury concerns that surrounded the ProCap and the idea of a soft helmet cover. Similar to the ProTech, the Guardian’s attachment method is a big focus and it’s something that has opened up some doors, according to Matt Simonds, Guardian Cap’s operations manager.

“We were able to really show that we have a completely safe product for the neck because it’s moving and shifting independently. That helmet, that unit. That’s been the biggest thing that’s enabled us to get some of these college programs on board — get the NFL looking back at it.”

Currently, the high school market accounts for 80 percent of business for Guardian, but the future could lead to a broader market. There are already college football programs using it in practice and the company won a grant in April 2017 from the NFL through the Head Health Challenge.

Regardless of whether it’s a high school athlete, a college player, or an NFL pro, however, Guardian seems focused on specific positions that may see the greatest benefit from extra head protection, due to the impact of sub-concussive blows which can cause long-term problems even though they sometimes go unnoticed, because they don’t typically trigger immediate symptoms.

“We’re targeting linemen and linebackers, kind of inside run,” says Simonds. “Most coaches are coaching a lot of the head contact in the practice environment on the edge positions. With the DBs and wide receivers, they’re really not having as much head contact. If you’re doing inside run or 9 on 7, it’s kind of unavoidable. A lot of times, we’re able to fit and manage the accumulation of the daily impacts as far as the sub-concussive blows that are adding up for the linemen injuries.”

While ProTech and the Guardian are primarily focused on a product that attaches to existing helmets, there is another company that hopes to apply the principles of force dissipation with a full helmet.

Channeling Force

“Today’s helmets are like cars used to be back in the ’70s,” Dave Marver told Uproxx in an interview before the current football season. “We’re talking about a really good steel structure. If you got into a collision, the car wouldn’t really buckle very much. You’re yielding, so a lot of the impact force from the collision would transfer to the passenger. Same thing with helmets. Our helmet is like a modern car. It yields or it crumples upon impact. Therefore, [it] slows impact forces before they can reach the head and brain.”

Marver is the CEO and co-founder of VICIS (along with pediatric neurosurgeon Sam Browd and Per Reinhall, the chair of mechanical engineering at the University of Washington). The Seattle-based company is an emerging player in the football helmet market thanks to the VICIS Zero1. The helmet is the result of a three-year, $20 million development cycle that led to a helmet that has “a soft outer shell that deforms on impact and a column-like inner structure intended to absorb impact and disperse its force omnidirectionally.”

The VICIS Zero1 outperformed all other helmets in NFL/NFLPA 2017 Helmet Laboratory Performance Tests. Those results are a boon to the young company as they’ve been posted in every NFL locker room this season. Since players choose their own helmets, that key placement has doubtlessly spurred interest while affording VICIS a bit of defense against concerns that their fresh approach to head protection might be something to be wary of.

After all, athletes are notorious creatures of habit and change is often looked upon with suspicion. Especially when you have to ween people off the notion that a harder helmet is an automatically better helmet.

“I would assert this [the VICIS Zero1] is likely the most extensively tested helmet in history,” says Marver, before recounting a rigorous process that includes impact machine testing such as a linear ram and rotational tests.

Marver wants it to be known that the VICIS Zero1 has been run through its paces in the lab and on the field. He tells us that his team (which consists of aerospace and medical technology professionals) worked with semi-pro leagues, spring leagues, college programs, and a few NFL players to refine the stability, feel, and look of the helmet. And that last one isn’t inconsequential.

“This helmet won’t help any athlete if the athlete doesn’t want to wear it,” says Marver, explaining why he insisted that the Zero1 was the same weight and size as previous market leaders.

Science vs. Science

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Concussions are too hard to diagnose and prevent to ever be fully eliminated. As Union College physics and astronomy associate professor Chad Orzel explains in a 2015 Forbes article, the point when a hard blow crosses over to become a dangerous blow is hard to pin down.

“The threshold for what acceleration causes damage is still fairly ill-defined — necessarily because it involves messy biological systems, rather than the frictionless spheres beloved of physicists. Damage from acceleration depends on the magnitude of the acceleration, the direction, the duration, and probably some individual variation in brain structure and so on.”

That’s part of the reason why companies are hesitant to even use the word “concussion” when talking about their products. Guardian Cap makes it clear on their website that use of the cap doesn’t make athletes concussion-proof and Dave Marver from VICIS tells us that they “don’t make claims with respect to concussion” and that they prefer to say that their “helmet can reduce excess forces.”

If that reduction is significant, then that can be a step in the right direction in a race that is without end. Because no matter the rule changes and improved focus on fundamentals and tackling technique, there’s still going to be football players on both sides of the ball that are working to get faster, hit harder, and be stronger.

The increase in size and the capacity to do damage between football players in the 1930s and 2000s is extreme and undisputed. Obviously, we’re not going to see that kind of appreciable size increase in the next 5-10 years where linemen put on 100lbs of muscle all of a sudden, but incremental gains in speed and strength are still highly sought after and definitely attainable, according to Mike Young, the performance and research director at Athletic Lab in North Carolina.

“There are small improvements in a host of fields such as training theory, recovery modalities, sports technology and nutrition that will continue to give a small but significant edge in performance,” Young tells Uproxx. “The average human in modernized societies is getting bigger and taller with each generation. We still haven’t reached the peak of human performance.”

Jordyn Gaza agrees that we aren’t at that peak. She’s a performance trainer at EFT Sports in Illinois and believes that performance is bound to improve year over year. This is due, in part, to “massage therapy, laser therapy, Fascial Stretch Therapy, cupping therapy, chiropractic care, Compex treatments, cryotherapy, dry needling, acupuncture, and more.”

Basically, Gaza is highlighting those recovery modalities that Young mentioned and prehab (which is an effort to guard against injuries).

“With new advances in technology, athletes are able to recover from training or a game at faster rates,” says Gaza. “By being able to recover faster, [athletes] are able to maintain the gains they have made during training, as well as perform at their peak during every competition.”

No matter if 40-yard dash times and weight training highs move forward or not, there is an appreciable difference between an athlete’s ability to perform at their high point and where they are as a game and a season wear on. That’s common sense, but studies focused on rugby players specifically tie fatigue to sloppier tackling technique. And a lack of sleep can hamper reaction time and mental alertness as well as recovery time, according to a 2015 MMQB article that detailed the NFL’s then new fixation with sleep study as a way of enhancing player performance.

At the time, as many as 11 NFL teams were focused on monitoring player sleep patterns with some providing nap rooms and bringing in specialists during training camp to talk to players about the importance of a full night’s sleep. One of those specialists, Dr. Charles Czeisler, told MMQB that he often cites a Stanford study by Dr. Cheri Mah and Dr. William Dement that focused on the impacts of increased sleep on the Stanford men’s basketball team across two seasons. The result?

“At the end of the sleep extension period, the players ran faster 282-foot sprints (16.2 seconds versus 15.5 seconds) than they had at baseline. Shooting accuracy during practice also improved: Free throw percentages increased by 9 percent and 3-point field goal percentage increased by 9.2 percent. Fatigue levels decreased following sleep extension, and athletes reported improved practices and games.”

Football players are being trained to be more alert, more energetic, more focused on form, and in more control of their bodies — in short, they’re going to continue to get better.

That’s the other kind of evolution that the game (and all sports, really) is in the midst of and it’s one that has to be respected and, in a sense, protected against when it comes to keeping players safe.

Can science save football? Perhaps, but it’s going to have to win that race against itself to do so. And that can only be achieved through a continued commitment to innovation, transparency, better equipment, and an attitude of willing adaptation for the good of players, fans, parents, and the bottom line.

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