Concussions are Shaping the Future of Professional Sports

Concussions are Shaping the Future of Professional Sports

Football has never been more popular. Some would say it has replaced baseball as America’s favorite pastime. But it’s tricky to predict what football will look like in another 50 years. Earlier this week, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s Vice President of Health and Safety, publicly acknowledged the connection between football-related head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Miller’s acknowledgement is a big deal, as Steve Fainaru points out in a recent article for It’s “the first time a senior league official has conceded football’s connection to devastating brain disease,” Fainaru explains.

The link between high-impact blows to the head and traumatic brain injury may seem obvious to us in 2016, but it hasn’t always been that way.The NFL’s formal admission before Congress goes against the findings of a league-funded 1994 research study, which repeatedly denied any links between football, concussions, and brain disease (“and attacked independent scientists who asserted otherwise,” according to Fainaru). More importantly, Miller’s statement could provide a leg up in the courtroom for the 5,000+ ex-NFL players who have sued the NFL for damages related to brain injuries. Cringe-worthy collisions are not worth the long term risks.

Conceptually, concussions aren’t so difficult to understand. Your brain sits inside your skull, surrounded by a thin layer of cerebrospinal fluid. But the fluid, which acts as a protective barrier, cannot provide sufficient protection if your head sustains an impact with enough force. During these “blows,” your brain bounces against your skull, damaging axons and the brain-blood barrier in their wake. Yikes.

Relative to other neurological conditions, scientists know surprisingly little about concussions. They understand how they happen, sure. But if concussions are point A and CTE is point B, scientists aren’t sure which route connects the two.

Many college and professional sports are aware of the danger that repeated concussions pose to pro athletes and are responding accordingly. The New York Times reported this week that the Ivy League now prohibits full-contact play during team football practices. And NFL and college football players aren’t the only ones at risk. The rise of competitive youth sports leagues means that athletes are experiencing those collisions at earlier ages, when the brain is still developing.

There’s a long history of athletes’ reluctance to adopt new equipment. In Major League Baseball’s early days, chest protectors and shin guards were derided as “tools of ignorance.” Since then, the MLB and also the NHL have made reducing players’ risk of injury a priority with required protective gear. The NFL needs to enact similar safety measures. Still, league officials must negotiate a tough question: when is safety a personal responsibility? At what point does inaction turn into negligence?

Both the MLB and the NFL have several helmet-related initiatives in the works. The NFL recently gave Vicis, a startup in Seattle, a grant of $500,000 to engineer a concussion-proof helmet; Vicis is slated to debut their new product this coming spring. The timeline below outlines the evolution of safety and equipment rules in major league sports.



1878: First baseball catcher’s mask is patented.

1907: New York Giants’ catcher and Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan wears shin guards, becoming the  1st MLB catcher to wear protective gear in open view.

1939: John T. Riddell Company introduces a plastic football helmet, which proves to be more durable than leather models.

1940: Chicago Bears’ Dick Plasman becomes last NFL player to play in a game without a helmet.

1943: NFL mandates that all players wear helmets.

1955: Popularized by legendary Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham, the “single bar” helmet is worn in the NFL.

1956: MLB “grandfathers in” helmets i.e. new players entering the league must wear helmets.

1962: The NFL requires that players wear helmets with face masks.

1968: NHL player Bill Masterton, a center for the Minnesota North Stars, hits his head on the ice in a game versus the Oakland Seals, causing a fatal brain aneurysm. Masterton becomes the first and only player in NHL history to die due to an on-ice incident.

1971: MLB requires all players to wear helmets while batting and running the bases. Catchers must wear them in the field.

1979: NHL makes helmets mandatory for new players entering the league; veterans have the choice of whether or not to wear one.

1983: All MLB players entering the league must wear a helmet with an ear flap.

1991: The first serious attempt by the UCI to introduce compulsory helmet use during the Tour de France. The UCI backs down after cyclists threaten to boycott the race.

1997: The last NHLer to play without a helmet, Craig MacTavish, retires.

2002: Riddell releases the Revolution (or Revo) Helmet, which most NFL players begin wearing.

2003: Turning point in cycling’s helmet policy due to the death of Kazakh Andrei Kivilev. The 2003 Giro d’Italia is the first major race affected. Bikers are still allowed to discard their helmets during final climbs that are at least 5 kilometers in length.

2009: Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster becomes the first MLB player to wear Rawlings’ new S100 helmet, which offers better protection than the company’s standard helmets.

3 Tech Innovations That Will Change the Face of Football

3 Tech Innovations That Will Change the Face of Football

1. Zero1 Flexible Helmet

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 2.23.33 PM


The high impact collisions that happen on every football play are often the equivalent, on the players skulls, of being hit in the head by a bowling ball dropped from a height of eight feet. When you think of it this way, it’s no surprise that 1 in 3 football players suffers from brain trauma during his career. What if there was a smarter helmet that could drastically reduce the amount of collisions that translate into concussions?

That’s exactly the goal of the Zero1 flexible helmet from Seattle company Vicis. Taking a cue from how automakers approach collision impact technology, the helmet features a multilayered approach meant to provide greater cushion upon impact than today’s helmets, which are mostly just plastic padded shells.

The Zero1 rethinks this approach with a middle layer comprised of hundreds of bendable polymer columns that act like shock absorbers. These columns transform from a straight line to a C shape and back again when hit, allowing them to slow the acceleration of force before it reaches the player’s head. Vicis’ CEO Dave Marker explained it to Wired like this: “Newton’s second law,” he says. “Force equals mass times acceleration. The mass of a player’s not going to change, but if you can slow acceleration—the “a” in the equation—you’re reducing force.”

Vicis currently doesn’t have any contracts, but it has received over $10 million in funding, and hopes to sell its helmets to NFL teams by next season. Aiming to reduce collision impact up to 50%, hopefully we’ll see the NFL embrace this huge helmet innovation immediately.

2. Zebra RFID Tracking Tech

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 2.09.40 PM

While football is the most watched sport in America, its use of sophisticated data analysis has notably lagged behind many other sports. From the huge size of the field to the intense physical contact of so many players at one time, figuring out the right way to obtain this data has been a huge hurdle. Better tracking could lead to a greater understanding of the game, and in turn, to smarter training strategies for winning teams.

Luckily a successful tracking system finally seems to be emerging for the NFL. An RFID tracking system from Zebra Technologies was tested in 18 stadiums last season. This season the NFL will use Zebra on all 32 teams.

So how does Zebra work? Two trackers embedded in the players’ shoulder pads have radio frequency identification sensors (RFID) that can track the speed, acceleration and position of individual players—up to 25 times a second! This new granular level of tracking will allow teams to better assess player performance based on actual play speed instead of old metrics like 40 yard sprints and height jumps.

Once teams figure out how best to analyze this new wave of data, we can expect to see coaches making even more tailored, customized training plans for individual players based on their strengths and weaknesses. This technology will ultimately enable NFL players to play smarter, not harder.

3. Gatorade Smart Cap Hydration

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 2.44.50 PM

Gatorade has been working on developing a “smart cap” bottle capable of tracking individual players’ hydration levels, sweat and sodium loss, and how much he needs to drink for optimal performance. Based on these individual needs, Gatorade will develop 12 different “fuel pods” that can be added to the bottle to optimize speedy recovery with specific levels of sodium and electrolyte replenishment.

Gatorade is currently testing its new technology on various sports teams, including the Kansas City Chiefs. While they’re still ironing out the wrinkles, we can expect to see this hydration customization arriving on a larger scale in the near future. It only makes sense in a data driven world for that level of precision to extend to what and how athletes are drinking.