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Friday Night Bites: How Technology Can Make Football Safer

Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish will be testing out “smart mouthguards.” Will they help to change a sport that is hurting its players?
August 15, 2011

Football is at a crossroads. The sport, beloved by so many, simply can’t continue on its current course—a collision course.

In the high-impact sport, concussions are rampant, with long-term detrimental effects to its players. In the past few years, feature stories in Time and the New Yorker have run with titles like “The Problem with Football” and “Does Football Have a Future?” The Time story opens with a scene of a two-time all-conference linebacker visiting a lab to view the battered brains of deceased players, visibly scarred by a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. “You look at something like that and think, This is your brain, and this is your brain on football,” he said. Any questions?

Yes, in fact. How do we get out of this mess?

Well, for starters, we need better data, and to that end, a new “smart mouthguard” being piloted at the University of Notre Dame, America’s football Mecca, is a step in the right direction. If we want to know more about what forces are at play during a collision, we need a way to record those forces. As CNET reports, the “intelligent mouthguard” (from a company called X2IMPACT) that will be tested out by 22 Fighting Irish players will record the g-force of collisions during games. Acceleration and rotation sensors collect the data and shoot it over to a laptop off the playing field, which then sends it via GSM to a secure internet database. X2IMPACT, a Seattle company, says it has six patents pending on the technology.

The hope is that this data will be useful to researchers designing the next line of safety equipment. (Also, high-magnitude impacts can send alerts to the sideline staff, suggesting when a ferocious tackle might demand an immediate medical examination, despite a quarterback’s protestations that he’s fine.)

In particular, defenders of the sport put a lot of stock in the next generation of helmets. The Time story points to a few helmet innovations, including one from a company called Xenith, which markets a helmet with hockey-puck-shaped shock absorbers inside. And to the New Yorker, a former Redskins player, Marcus Koch, half-joked that the smartest helmet of all would do its part to communicate the brutality of the sport: “So maybe you’d have a mouth guard that registers the impact they’re getting on the field, and at certain g-forces the helmet shell would crack and explode and leak gray matter and blood,” said the former defensive lineman, who now suffers from extreme depression and numbness in his extremities.

Koch’s thinking, actually, seems more in line with the actual sorts of reform that football needs. A recurring theme in discussions of football-related injuries is that the whole culture of the game needs to be changed. A 100 percent concussion-proof helmet is a chimera. As the founder of Xenith, Vin Ferrara told Time: “You will never hear me say that protection is more than half the battle. …The most effective thing is not getting hit in the first place.” What needs to change is football itself—its rules, its practices, the bloodlust of its fans. If, and only if, these new mouthguards nudge us along that path will they be truly smart.

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