Washington companies develop new technologies to make football safer

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Increased awareness about sports-related brain trauma has brought a wave of new wearable technology designed to make athletes safer.

Two Seattle-area startups specialize in this emerging field.

Athlete Intelligence, established in 2013, makes mouthguards that track players’ head movements, sensors that measure the force of tackles and software that can update coaches in real time about the conditions of their players. And Vicis, a company spun out of the University of Washington in 2014, makes high-tech, multilayered helmets that flex and bend to absorb hits, similar to the way modern cars are designed to crumple in accidents.

Jesse Harper, the chief executive of Athlete Intelligence, said football and other sports with high rates of concussion, such as soccer and cheerleading, are overdue for technologies that provide “an additional set of eyes and ears” on the field.

“In a game, the sideline is organized chaos, you know, there’s a lot going on, there’s things happening. And some of the most egregious hits happen off-camera or away from where the ball is. People didn’t see it,” Harper said. “At the NFL level, you’ve got a spotter who sits in the press box that radios down to the sidelines and says, ‘Take a look at this.’ But only some college programs have that, and no high schools or youth teams have that.”

The Athlete Intelligence lineup includes the Vector mouthguard and the Cue and Shockbox impact sensors, which can be attached to helmets and other pieces of equipment.

The mouthguard uses gyroscopic sensors and a radio signal to transmit information about players’ movements, such as how they hang or bob their heads while running or tackling. The impact sensors measure not only the force of tackles, but also where on the body those hits are landing. That data is then sent via Bluetooth signal to the coach’s smartphone or smartwatch.

“We can tell you how hard a player’s hit to the head is,” Harper said. “And we can do a 3D map of the player’s head in real time, and we can show you where that impact occurred.”

These devices enable coaches to not only pull players from the field after concerning hits, but also track athletes’ performances over the course of games and seasons, and adjust training accordingly, Harper said. Over time, he said, athletes might learn to how to play the game more safely.

“We don’t diagnose a concussion. A medical professional has to do that,” he said. “We’re simply raising a hand and we’re saying, ‘Hey, he just took a big hit, or she just took a big hit. You might want to take a look at them.’”

Other companies such as Riddell make similar impact-monitoring systems, but many of Athlete Intelligence’s competitors remain in the research and development phase, Harper said. “It’s still a small group of people in the market, but there’s more coming,” he said.

The goal, he said, is to outfit players with sensors for less than the cost of a pair of cleats. Athlete Intelligence currently does so for about $99 per player, with most customers playing at the college and high school levels.

Recently, Harper said, a Washington insurance company, Clear Risk Solutions, decided to partially subsidize the sensors for teams across the state. “They’re paying to put our technology onto 17,000 athletes this year because they feel like it bends the risk curve,” he said.

Heidi Peterson is a licensed athletic trainer at the MultiCare Rockwood Sports Medicine Center who created a Spokane-area sports concussion committee last year. She cautioned that, while it’s important to develop technology to protect players on the field, it can also give them the false perception that they are impervious to injury.

“Sometimes, better equipment – even if it’s better shoulder pads – that makes it easier to run into somebody,” Peterson said. “That’s the Catch-22.”

She pointed to the development of the so-called “flak jacket,” a protective device worn by players with injuries to their torsos in an effort to get back on the field faster.

Houston Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini began wearing and ultimately popularized the flak jacket in the 1970s after its inventors showed up in his hospital room with the jacket and a baseball bat, which they used to whack his cracked ribs to demonstrate the padding’s effectiveness. NFL Films, the affiliated documentary arm of the league, celebrated Pastorini’s decision to play with cracked ribs and the flak jacket as one of its “Top Ten Gutsiest Performances” in a 2009 special.

Refined versions of the jackets are now marketed not only to adult players but also to children.

“That’s a good thing, yes, that we have that type of equipment,” Peterson said. “But then again, it creates this false sense of security that you can do things that would normally hurt.”

Harper acknowledged no product currently on the market can prevent concussions. Helmets prevent skull fractures, he noted, but they don’t stop brains from being jostled around. He said he’s open to the idea of moving or even getting rid of kickoffs – when many concussions occur – though he disagrees that football should be banned altogether.

“I played football. I’ve got two boys who play. I coached when I was younger. It’s personal to me,” he said. “As a fan of the game, and as a person who really loves the sport, I don’t want to see it watered down, and I don’t want to see it become flag football. But on the flip side, we need to do a better job protecting these players, and we haven’t done a particularly good job in the industry.”

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