The NFL has made changes to reduce concussions, including moving kickoffs forward to limit returns and cracking down on the major blows to the head. Since the summer of 2014, the league has considered putting sensors in helmets to measure hits and track concussions, something that one leading expert—Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz—said they may have been able to implement as soon as the 2015 season.
Reports have now come out saying the NFL is not yet comfortable using the sensors. It has not ruled them out, but they are permanently on hold and will definitely not be used in 2015. As more testing occurs, they could come back into play for future seasons.
There are different sensor setups, but one of the main ones is known as HITS — Helmet Impact Telemetry System. The sensors in this system run off of batteries and they are fitted into the padding of the helmet. There, they can determine where on the helmet the hit takes place and how many g-forces are generated. If a hit seems excessively violent—breaking 98 on the g-force scale, for instance—the sensors can alert medical professionals.
These are not entire new systems. Virginia Tech uses them and compiles data, a program that is funded by, among others, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Defense. All told, 20 different college-level programs use these sensors.
The complaint the NFL has is that the sensors may not be accurate enough and more testing has to be done. They don’t simply want to rush into anything. Particularly, they are concerned about how well the sensors can work with hits outside of the crown of the helmet, such as a strike against the facemask.
Researchers have admitted the sensors are not able to do everything flawlessly and that the systems are limited to some degree. However, many feel they still help and provide additional data, even if there are shortcomings.
Interestingly, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) is also against these sensors. When asked, they stated the risk was that players could be pulled from games based on the data and the information could also make its way into contract negotiations.
On one hand, you can see the NFL’s point. If the sensors are inaccurate, players could be yanked from big games when they shouldn’t be. What if Tom Brady gets hit in the head and has to come out in the last two minutes of the Super Bowl because the sensors think he might have a concussion, but he turns out to be fine?
That’s the type of mess the NFL wants to avoid, and with good reason. After all, the sensors just tell the medical team to check the player, not that he definitely has a concussion.
On the other side, this does feel like the NFL is yet again dragging its feet and trying to act like concussions aren’t a big deal. Sure, the sensors may not be able to accurately gauge facemask hits, but one has to think the sensors would underreport such hits, if anything.
Is all of the other data useless just because there is one type of hit that may not be read properly? Couldn’t data from all other hits still be helpful? It seems like a thin excuse to drop the whole project.
The NFLPA’s stance is more confusing. On one hand, the players have fought very hard to get a lot of money from the NFL because of past concussions. Not that they’re wrong to do so, but you can’t have it both ways.
They’re now saying they don’t want sensors because players could be taken out of the games, but isn’t that exactly what they wanted? Wasn’t their complaint that players were not taken out of games, so they were permanently injured through multiple concussions? They seem to be playing both sides of the issue, trying simply to get the most money possible.
Which is the exact thing a lot of people have blamed the NFL of doing.
In reality, their stance is probably similar to the NFL’s. They don’t want a player being taken out when he’s not hurt because a sensor in his helmet malfunctioned or sent back the wrong reading. However, it’s not like this is something that happens all the time at Virginia Tech or any of the other schools that already use sensors.
Plus, the sensors don’t make any decisions. They just tell the medical staff to make their own evaluation so a hard hit isn’t overlooked.
Either way, these sensors are probably coming to the NFL at some point. It’s just a question of when.