September 8, 2011
With the National Football League season getting underway tonight, we’ll soon be treated to video replays in super-slow motion of ridiculously violent collisions that would make the rest of us want to wear bubble wrap for a few years.
What we won’t see is what’s going on inside those helmets, or actually the skulls inside those helmets, when those man-crashes occur. Inevitably, someone’s brain will shake liked grooved Jell-o, and if last season’s pace holds up, one player in the game will likely end up with a concussion.
Long football’s dirty little secret, concussions have been getting almost as much attention as point spreads lately—especially now that a group of former players is suing the NFL. They’re seeking damages for brain injuries as well as insisting that the league do a better job of protecting players and monitoring their medical conditions. And they cite chilling stats. A typical NFL lineman gets hit in the head as many as 1,500 times in a season. Retired players older than 50 are 5 times more likely to have a dementia-related disorder than the average person.
No surprise, then, that the NFL is moving quickly toward the day when its players will wear “smart helmets”—headgear with sensors that measure the location and direction of a head hit. That data would be wirelessly transmitted to a computer on the sidelines which would then calculate the magnitude of the blow. If it’s above a set threshold, the player would have to come out of the game, no matter how much he insists it was no big ding.
It’s not just the NFL that’s going wireless to track head whacks. This season, 22 Notre Dame players are taking the field fitted with “intelligent mouthguards.” No, the devices can’t carry on witty repartee. But they can measure the G-force of collisions and send the data to a sideline computer. And a company called Battle Sports Science has developed a chin strap that can gauge the level of impact to a player’s head. If a light on the strap turns from green to red, it’s time for the player to have a little face time with the team doctor.
But there are other ways the NFL is getting its tech on. Here are a few:
- Playbook purge: One of the mainstays of NFL training camps is the playbook the size of an unabridged dictionary. This year the Tampa Bay Buccaneers became the first team to instead give each player an iPad loaded with diagrams and videos.
- Double vision: Some NFL teams, including the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles, have started attaching tiny one-pound HD cameras to the helmets of their quarterbacks during practices. That allows coaches to follow the quarterback’s eyes and see if he’s looking where he’s supposed to be looking.
- Speed readings: During the NFL Scouting Combine before the NFL draft last spring, some of the players being scouted wore Under Armour shirts that measured G-forces, heart rate and other factors as they worked out.
- Ball smarts: The NFL is looking at a technology where a sensor in the ball would determine if it actually crossed the goal line.
- What took so long?: The Philadelphia Eagles became the first team to replace its cheerleader calendar with a cheerleader mobile app.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.