Can Technology Make Football Safer

I have played football competitively for sixteen years, and have always been ignorant to the effects of brain trauma, depression, CTE, and all the other side effects of playing the game. Part of me was trying to ignore these side effects football related injuries because I did not want to know how bad it could be. Another part of me just ignored such injuries because I knew it would affect my play if I focused too much on the harm they could inflict. I played an internal, mental game of ignorance to pretend nothing that serious could ever happen to me. After my last football game for Boston College, I was finally willing to watch the movie, Concussion. I was overcome with all kinds of emotions and have since been very interested in ways we can mitigate risk and protect players. Other long-term effects of the game have raised alarming results, and compounded the dangers we know of.

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Ill try my best not to make this blog depressing and horrifying. I really want to highlight some innovative technologies that have been invented to protect players. However, this is a serious issue, and many of the long-term effects of playing football at a competitive level are terrifying. But this blog will be intended to highlight the good side of technology, and all the benefits it can bring to the game!

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In recent years, traumatic head injuries have been studied more extensively. The violence of the game continues to increase as competitors continue to get bigger, faster, and stronger. Football is essentially sixty minutes of grown men crashing into each other multiple times. Neuropathologists have studied effects of injuries such as depression and CTE, and have identified aspects of the game that increase the chances of destructive patterns later on in a player’s life. After seeing close teammates suffer from such injuries, I realized that football leagues, players, and fans all have a responsibility to make a change.

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As a graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High School, I am proud to say that my former high school has taken great steps to ensure the safety of their players. They have introduced technologies and practice habits that will forever change the way the game is played. Head coach, Roger Harriott has been instituting changes to make the game safer. He has made certain restrictions during practice time, but his biggest change he has made for the high school powerhouse involves an innovative piece of technology. Coach Harriott recently introduced several pairs of motorized human-size robots that are wrapped in foam. Players tackle and block these dummies, which saves their teammates from unnecessary hits. Coach Harriott said, “Ultimately, it’s for these guys to become a champion in life—a champion husband, a champion father, community leader, colleague.”

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The creation of the MVP football dummy started when Buddy Teevans, the head football coach at Dartmouth, came up with a philosophy to protect players.  He was adamant about creating a product that would replace “live” tackling in practice. His product eliminated dangerous hits and allowed the fundamentals of football to be taught in a controlled environment. The genesis of the MVP tackling dummy sparked a great deal of innovation in the sport.

At St. Thomas Aquinas High School, Coach Harriott has made a conscious decision to protect the players and their future with various types of technology. During workouts, several players wear monitors that track heart rate, exertion levels, and more. The strength staff closely monitors players with a history of conditions that may affect performance. On the field, over half the team wears shoulder pads with sensors in them. This technology records top speeds of the athlete, collision force, body temperatures, and other important variables.

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St. Thomas Aquinas has been a very successful high school football team in the last ten years, and much of the technology they use has been available to them due to sponsors like Gatorade and Nike. We need to find a way for more high schools to have the ability to use these types of technology. Additionally, every college football team in the “Power 5” conference needs to be using innovative technologies to protect the players. They certainly have the disposable income to do so…

Technology has allowed society to progress and improve in so many ways. Sports that involve a great deal of injuries need to implement innovative technology capabilities that will protect the players and improve the game. I hope that some of these emerging technologies are just the start for the implementation of technology in football on a big scale.

16 comments

  1. Very interesting post! It’s obviously enjoyable to read something you’re clearly so interested and passionate about. I think the robot practice players are awesome and such a good idea moving forward in any sport, especially contact sports like football. Do you think Boston College or other major programs should make a bigger shift towards these technologies, or have you guys already done this?

    It is obviously tough because tackling and contact is so important and a skill one must development, but there must be a risk there every time one practices it.

    1. Unfortunately, I don’t think BC will make this shift any time soon. I think many coaches fear that the dummy isn’t shifty or nimble enough to prepare players for extremely athletic running backs, wide receivers, and other skilled players they will face. I think the dummy needs to be implemented in certain parts of practice when violent contact isn’t necessary. The shift towards using technology like this was once thought to be impossible, but we are slowly making progress.

  2. Great post! The technology that is being used to create more safety in the game is much needed. I did not realize that their was technology measuring collision force. Will a coach take a player out if the technology measures a certain limit of force?

    Your former HS coach seems very up to date on monitoring head injuries and using technology to advise his practice. Is your coach in the majority or minority in using these strategies?

    1. Thanks for the comment Joe.. I would say my coach is in the minority of those using this technology. As far as taking players out, I have heart of athletes being removed from workouts due to rapid heart rates and other abnormalities that were detected. This application is especially useful in the south, where summer temps are incredibly hot and take a toll on kids..

  3. I’m happy to hear that your former high school is taking steps to improve safety among its players. I believe going forward this will be critical to keep football a viable sport for future generations. I hope other coaches will follow suit as I do think there is a culture among most football coaches to be extremely tough and willing to push through pain that can be detrimental to the long term mental health of the players. I hope that programs such as the Dartmouth tackling dummies continue to become implemented by football programs across the country. Great post!

  4. Super interesting take on the subject because you have a personal relationship to the sport and the possible injuries it may have caused you had you not been careful. I worked for the NFL’s Health and Safety initiative this past summer and it is incredibly surprising how not many players were informed in the past and how many parents are scared to let their kids play so youth football participation numbers are declining. The heads up tackle is a new initiative that is being promoted especially amongst the moms that are essentially the people who allow and take their kids to play. By having workshops with them and informing them that although there are risks there are new safety measures being taken, the conversation around this has changed. Its great to see that there are technologies to follow the conversation.

    1. I agree, and I think the NFL has stepped up in quite a few ways. Another initiative they have taking is developing a foundation under the turf that has more “give” to it…Almost like a spring.

  5. Great post. It’s actually quite scary to learn about the injuries in this sport, and of course due to the fact that you have been extremely devoted to it and for so long. I enjoyed watching the video to understand how the Dartmouth dummies work. I saw your comment above that BC probably won’t make the shift soon, and so I really hope that they will be able to find other technologies to implement going forward and that can mitigate injuries, without having to compromise on the athlete’s ability to be fully prepared for the games.

  6. Great post. I remember watching Concussion and thinking about my nephew (7 years old) who is starting to play football. He LOVES the game and I’m sure he’ll play for awhile, but it terrifies me to think of the long-term injuries he could sustain. I’m trying to convince him to be a kicker…I appreciate your first-hand experience with this issue and your honesty about the initial denial. I bet a lot of kids are in your shoes and could benefit from reading this blog. On the positive side, I think the Dummies and heart-rate/exertion monitoring are great moves in the right direction, so hopefully we can keep this great sport going but make it safer for our players.

    1. Thanks for the comment, and thanks for sharing about your nephew. I am confident that by the time he starts playing high school ball we will have come a long way with these technologies. I bet rules will change and new systems will be implemented to protect players. So don’t let him lose that passion!!!

      1. He writes plays in his notebook on his way to school…His passion is not going anywhere!

      2. Haha I love to hear that! Tell him to keep up the hard work

  7. Such a relevant topic and great post! I think I a lot of programs these days are understanding the future health implications or not securing their teams with the safest methods of playing, however there are many that are still lacking. I think this problem can be seen in many sports including soccer. When I played soccer i had to wear head gear in my high school games because the league required it. Along with yearly concussion screenings that I am sure many teams do. I think the best way to ensure that safer ways of practicing are used is the leagues implement these rules. Then everyone will listen to it and hopefully get funding for MVP dummies or the practice gear.

  8. Interesting topic! I had not previously given much though to safety and football, despite having gone to every University of Michigan football game while I was undergrad there. I had assumed that the way the players were coached was what ensured safety and prevented injuries like on Friday Night Lights. I wonder how high schools that can’t get sponsorship from Gatorade or Nike can get the same access to safety equipment as mentioned in your post?

    1. Thanks for the comment! I think you raised a great question and as I think about it more, there needs to be some type of initiative or program, because like you mentioned, not all schools are sponsored by Gatorade and Nike..

  9. Great post. I confess that I feel guilty for watching football, given the number of NFL players that have been so critically injured. I’m hopeful that technologies like these can help protect the players. Maybe we should just all play Madden instead?

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