Saturday, February 4, 2012

Head Games

Somewhere inside Lucas Oil Stadium, an emergency medical team will be ready to respond to an injured player on Super Bowl Sunday. During most games at most stadiums, these first responders remain idle on the bench.

That’s not to say there aren’t serious, life-threatening injuries occurring every week in the National Football League. They go unnoticed. For that matter, those same traumas occur on the college gridiron and at the high school level.

Some studies estimate that as many as 15-20% of high school players (200,000 to 250,000 boys) experience concussions each year.

During the run-up to this week’s big game, media outlets have explored the head injury issue. Last Sunday night, CNN and Sanjay Gupta, M.D., exposed some jaw-dropping insight on the impact of repetitive concussions. A pathologist examined the brain of a deceased 17-year-old player and identified conditions of dementia. That’s right, this young victim’s brain had started to turn very old because of the beating it took on the field.

For years, HBO’s “Real Sports” has been the journalistic leader in efforts to report the connections between football head injuries and their long term affects, including causing ALS.

Although slow to acknowledge the scientific connections, even the NFL has now made a formal commitment to fund studies of concussions and improve the healthcare of injured athletes.

But despite all this data, why haven’t we seen a better football helmet?

Battle Sports Science manufactures a variety of protective gear including a chinstrap Impact Indicator TM. The technology measures the force a football player endures and if the green light goes out, it means he should sit and his coach should evaluate him for a concussion. It’s a step in the right direction, but it would be better if we could prevent the injuries in the first place.

When it comes to safety, the NFL, NCAA and governing bodies for high school sports could all take a cue from the car business. The laws of physics are the same. It’s not the acceleration that hurts you in a car crash or a smashing hit on the football field. It’s the deceleration that kills. You stop so fast in a vehicle collision that your vital organs hit your skeleton at high speed. And the same thing happens to the brain during a helmet-to-helmet hit. The organ and its surrounding fluids are battered back and forth within the skull.

The big difference is that many people never experience a car crash in their lives. On the football field, collisions occur on virtually every play. And they can add up to trouble.

Like the NFL, the carmakers too were slow to get behind advanced safety. Lee Iacocca was against airbags before he was for them.  Eventually, Detroit and the rest of the automakers responded to public pressure and federal regulation to add technologies like smart air bags, as well as side airbags and head airbags mounted in  headliners.

But the need to decrease fatalities eventually forced companies to realize it was not just important to protect occupants in a crash. But it was even more critical to prevent the collision in the first place. Crash avoidance features have exploded in an evolutionary cascade, from anti-lock brakes and traction control to electronic stability control and active rollover protection. There are now systems that alert drivers, like blind spot detection and lane departure warning.

Volvo, a premier safety nameplate, refused to market a sport utility vehicle until its engineers could counter the dangerous vulnerability of a truck with a high center of gravity. When Continental AG invented Active Rollover Protection (ARP), Volvo released the XC90. You might remember the infamous Ford Explorer rollovers. Those vehicles now include standard rollover protection.

Carmakers have even borrowed military technology to improve safety. When Cadillac first offered night vision in the 1990’s, it came from defense contractors that had developed the technology for U.S. troops.

Can sports equipment companies like Riddell and Schutt reinvent headgear to better protect football players?

Right now, the helmet makers struggle with the same challenges as auto engineers. If they stiffen the structure to sustain harder hits, the same helmet can cause head injuries at lower impacts. The car guys eventually figured out you need to avoid the crash to reduce fatalities.

With that same logic, some critics are calling for an end to football, as we know it.  They’re suggesting rule changes like the elimination of the three-point stance. That would prevent two 300-pound linemen from getting maximum leverage before lunging into each other. Some high school coaches are limiting the hits in practice to reduce the thousands of impacts kids endure.

Parents work so hard to protect their children in vehicles with car seats, it’s ironic that they allow them to suit up for football without better protection.

Sadly, there have been no significant changes to helmet standards in nearly 40 years. Meanwhile players have gotten much bigger and faster.

But if the NFL and the NCAA invest enough money someone will invent the helmet of the future. A billion dollar purse to the company that develops the ultimate football safety gear would not only generate a few high-paying jobs, it could save lives and America’s favorite game.

Enjoy the Super Bowl.

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