The Super Bowl is upon us yet again and with it come copious speculations about the outcome, food and beverage indulgences, hype around anticipated commercials, and team spirit. These athletes have trained, practiced, and played for months to get to this coveted spot. But their most valuable possession isn’t one that brought their team to the Super Bowl. It’s in their head—literally. It’s their brain.
In every single play, athletes block and tackle each other, often times landing head-first on the ground. All this crashing into each other can, over time, take a toll on a player’s brain. Every year, millions of football players—of all ages—suffer concussions. But new technology may help coaches make informed decisions and make the game safer for players.
The mouth guard featured in this NOVA video has built-in sensors, including a gyroscope and an accelerometer. The gyroscope tracks where the player’s head is in space, offering precise information about an object’s orientation—similar to the twisting and tilting of a video game controller. The accelerometer, on the other hand, measures a player’s speed and movement through space.
When a player gets hit, these sensors register not only where the player got hit, but how hard the player got hit. If the hit exceeds a certain threshold, the device sends an alert via Bluetooth to a coach or trainer on the sidelines, who can then pull the player off the field for a medical evaluation.
Thousands of high school and college athletes use these devices, collecting data about the kinds of hits that are particularly dangerous. “The data we received [are] every single practice and every single game for one team for the entire season,” said Kendall Thomas, an athlete and undergraduate researcher at Davidson College. Thomas and Tim Chartier, an applied mathematician at Davidson, analyzed more than 20,000 data points.
They found that when football players become tired, they drop their heads—meaning they’re looking at the ground instead of looking up. This exposes the crown of the head, putting the neck and spine at risk. They also found that some positions, like linemen, get hit more. These players are hitting the front of their head during a collision with an opponent and then hitting the back of their head when they hit the ground.
This is what happened to Jeff Habecker’s son. When Tanner was 12, he sustained a concussion. On the field, he was lethargic and couldn’t keep his eyes open. But 15 minutes later, those symptoms had disappeared. It wasn’t until five months after his accident that he began experiencing problems in his classroom. He has issues with is balance, his cognitive thinking, and his short-term memory. “He’ll probably never step foot on the field again,” said Habecker, safety coordinator for Cacalico Midget Football Association.
Concussions can occur at any age and in any level—including professional football players. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs, experienced a concussion playing against the Houston Texans in 2015. “I felt it right away,” he said. “So, I raised my hand and was like, ‘You know what, I’m not feeling good.’”
But it’s not only the big hits that lead to concussions that players and coaches should be worried about. Even mild collisions can be dangerous over time. Several studies have linked repeated head trauma to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (C.T.E.), a degenerative brain disease that can only be diagnosed post-mortem. One such study of diseased NFL players’ brains found that 110 of 111 had C.T.E. However, it’s important to note this was not a random sample of NFL retirees—many families donated brains because the former player exhibited symptoms.
There are various mouth guards and helmets on the market that intend to make the sport safer, but technology alone cannot eliminate the risk of concussions or C.T.E. Football is still a game of collisions, but these kinds of data can help in other ways.
“By studying the data of the impacts, we can improve training, we can improve game performance,” said Chartier. Some football teams are using the data to inform tackling and blocking techniques. Since Habecker became Safety Coordinator for his son’s team, he has not only developed a concussion protocol, but also helped implement some of the results from the data analysis. “We started teaching them some tackles where instead of tackling with their heads in front of that player, they tackle with the head to the side of the player.”
Ultimately, it’ll take a lot more than a fancy mouth guard to make a contact sport like football safe. It’ll require a change in culture and technique that starts while the players are young. Still, this type of innovative technology is an important first step.