Playing it Safe: Connected Technologies Address Safety, Performance, Efficiency and Good Calls

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  November 04, 2013

Connected technologies are suiting up in a variety of sports venues to do everything from measuring physical impacts on players, to gauging and improving the performance of athletes, eliminating incorrect judgment calls, and even enabling fans to spend less time in beer and bathroom lines at stadiums.

Head in the Game

Sports safety is one of the big arenas in which connected technology has become a marquee player.

Concussions recently have become a huge issue in sports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that millions of sports-related concussions and mild traumatic brain injuries, which can cause long-term damage, occur annually.

Reports and studies indicate that professional athletes who are exposed to repetitive mild traumatic brain injuries may develop ongoing impairment such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative condition caused by a build up of tau protein, according to a January article on the UCLA newsroom, which adds that CTE has been associated with memory loss, confusion, progressive dementia, depression, suicidal behavior, personality changes, abnormal gait and tremors.

“Now, for the first time, UCLA researchers have used a brain-imaging tool to identify the abnormal tau proteins associated with this type of repetitive injury in five retired National Football League players who are still living,” the article goes on to say. “Previously, confirmation of the presence of this protein, which is also associated with Alzheimer's disease, could only be established by an autopsy.”

The heavy interest in concussions follows some high-profile pro football injuries and related lawsuits, which ultimately forced the National Football League to build a campaign around how it is addressing the problem. The NFL has altered some rules with an eye toward safety, created committees to focus on other safety-enhancing efforts, and committed $30 million to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health for medical research on brain injuries and related topics. And as part of the NFL and NFL Players Association’s latest collective bargaining agreement, the two organizations agreed to commit $100 million to medical research over the next 10 years.

Concern about the sometimes extreme and long-term effects of concussions has led some to forecast the end of football as we know it. The Atlantic in January ran a piece in which senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates opined “you tell a parent that their kid has a five percent chance of developing crippling brain damage through playing a sport, and you will see the end of Pop Warner and probably the end of high school football. Colleges would likely follow. (How common are college boxing teams these days?) After that, I don’t know how pro football can stand for long.” 

Of course, the risk of sports-related head injuries is not specific to professional football (or to the sport of football for that matter, although because it’s a contact sport football has become the center activity on this issue). Other professional, as well as amateur, sports leagues and teams are also becoming more familiar with the risks and some are instituting new measures to address them.

The NFL website on July 30 featured a story that reported “In 2012, the national Pop Warner organization mandated that no more than one-third of practice time, or about 40 minutes a week, could be devoted to full-speed contact.” (The main focus of the piece, however, was about a study indicating that head impacts for Pop Warner players as a whole are decreasing and that reducing contact-related “could limit the efforts to teach proper tackling techniques.”) In similar developments on this front, The Alabama High School Athletic Association recently announced new practice guidelines, which include a limit of 90 minutes of full-contact practice a week.

Lawmakers and their constituents are playing a role in the fight to lessen the impact of sports-related head injuries as well. For example, the Tennessee state legislature recently passed a new youth sports concussion law. The state of Washington, meanwhile, has the Zackery Lystedt Law, named after a middle schooler from the state who sustained significant brain injury after returning to play football during a game in which he got a concussion. The Lystedt law says that athletes, coaches and parents must be educated each year about the dangers of concussions; a young athlete suspected of having a concussion must be removed and kept out from a game or practice; and a licensed health care professional must clear the young athlete to return to play in the subsequent days or weeks.

Sports gear companies continue to do research and development to improve the safety of their equipment. For example, Rawlings sells the S100 Pro Comp helmet, the official batting helmet of Major League Baseball, which absorbs 75 percent of the impact of a 100mph pitch.

As advanced as helmets, mouth guards and other gear have become, however, no piece of equipment can completely eliminate the risk of a concussion or other injury. Sports are unpredictable; that’s part of the reason sports are so interesting. As a result, a variety of products that measure impact – to help coaches, trainers and parents decide whether to remove an athlete from the field – have recently been unveiled.

One of those products comes from Connecticut-based i1 biometrics. It’s a mouth guard that detects both linear and rotational acceleration of a player’s head upon impact. And it instantly transfers that information to a computer or smartphone on the sidelines, so involved parties can analyze the data.

MC10 has developed a sensor, which is fitted into a mesh cap, that senses when the athlete has taken a hit. When the Reebok-branded device displays a yellow light, it signals a moderate impact; a red light indicates a severe hit.

A TIME article on the device quotes NFL veteran linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski, who by the way is on the MC10 advisory board, saying “The whole point of the CheckLight system is that you don’t want the red or yellow light to be triggered. In our field tests, the majority of coaches reported that their athletes were more cognizant of keeping their head out of the path of impact. This is a real-time teaching tool to give you instantaneous feedback.”

(Maybe so, but some recent reports on protective headgear for soccer players have indicated that such gear may make players more aggressive in their play. However, that anecdotal evidence applies to protective headgear and amateur soccer; whereas the CheckLight solution is a sensor, not an active protection device, which appears to be targeted at professional athletes.)

A different but somewhat similar product, this one designed for student athletes, comes from X2 Biosystems. In fact, founder and CMO Rich Able came up with the idea after his son was knocked unconscious during a high school football game and suffered major subsequent attention, behavioral and mood problems.

The X2 solution, which at the end of July was still in preproduction, consists of software and the little xPatch, a sensor that attaches like a bandage onto the athlete’s skin (a photo shows it behind the ear of Morgan Swanson, a former UW soccer player). The device gathers information about head impacts and uses the X2Net wireless protocol to communicate the details of it to an X2 access point on the sidelines.

The Seattle-based company’s website homepage features the following quote from a Dr. Stanley Herring, which it credits with getting the Lystedt Law passed: “Concussion is a problem that will be solved with knowledge, not helmets.”

Peak Performance

Sensors also can be, and increasingly are, being used to track the performance of athletes during practice, training and even during games.

A July Sports Illustrated article talks about how “a small black-and-orange gadget about the size of a hockey pock” was spotted on the back of Connor Barwin’s uniform during a recent practice and that the 30-gram device “contained a GPS, magnetometer, accelerometer and gyroscope that had just recorded his every movement on the practice field.”

The article went on to note that Eagles invested $1 million into technology upgrades during the offseason and has hired on Shaun Huls to occupy the new position of sports science coordinator.

Sports Illustrated in the same piece says: “The array of technology creates a physiological dashboard for each player. Among the equipment: Catapult Sports’ OptimEye sensors, which Barwin was wearing; heart-rate monitors from Polar; an Omegawave system that measures an athlete’s readiness for training and competition; and weight-lifting technology from a company named EliteForm, with 3-D cameras that record not just how much an athlete is lifting but how quickly he is doing it. There is also the low-tech end: Players are asked to urinate in a cup before practice to check their hydration levels.

“The result is a data-driven approach to training, which is compatible with and perhaps even necessary for the way [Chip] Kelly coaches,” SI says. “In the up-tempo style he brought from Oregon – the Ducks averaged more than 81 offensive plays per game last season – players are perpetually on the move. Some sports scientists, like the University of Connecticut’s William Kraemer, say research does not support the perception that an up-tempo pace imposes extreme fitness and recovery demands. But even so, sports-science technology can play an important role in preventing overuse, overtraining and the often accompanying soft-tissue injuries.”

The Verdict

Technology is also starting to play a larger role in helping officials make the correct calls.

Introducing technology for this purpose has, of course, been a long time coming. But it has been a hairy issue that involves balancing the human elements of the game and a desire to keep the action moving forward with an obvious interest to leave important – and often game-changing – calls to chance, or at least to human error.

The latest convert to embrace goal-line technology is FIFA. The soccer association in February announced it will use the technology at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

FIFA in April announced it had selected GoalControl to provide goal-line technology for next year’s World Cup. Other contenders were Cairos, GoalRef and Hawk-Eye, the first two of which leverage magnetic sensor fields, and the third of which uses another camera system and reportedly had been considered the favorite.

GoalControl-4D includes 14 high-speed cameras focused on both goals and capture the ball’s position continuously in three dimensions when it is close to the goal. When the ball passes the goal line, the system sends an encrypted radio signal to the referee’s watch within less than a second.

Other Lines

Speaking of lines, select sports venues are also now leveraging technology to avoid lengthy lines at stadium bathrooms, and food and beverage stands.

For example, the new 49ers Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., which will host Super Bowl in 2016, will have a mobile app to help fans locate the on-premises bathrooms and beer concessions with the shortest lines.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi