Toward NFL brain injury “dosimeters”
[Author’s note: The following text is a submission to the Evolution of Sport panel at next year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. The panel calls for anyone to submit a short, innovative idea for improving sports. The top ten submitters will be videotaped and have their message broadcast at the conference.
The deadline for submission is
January 15, 2011 January 20, 2011 (deadline extended). Apply here.
The idea below is simple, and is probably not “revolutionary” enough to be chosen. I’m sure that some of you have better ones!]
Imagine for a moment that you work at a nuclear power plant. Your job, then, has a significant long-term occupational hazard: radioactivity. Your company deals with this hazard by requiring that whenever you are at work you wear a small, badge-sized sensor on your chest called a “dosimeter”. The dosimeter measures how much radiation you are exposed to. If the dose ever exceeds certain legal limits for radiation exposure during a day or month or year, you are ordered to stay home (with pay) to ensure that you do not receive so much radiation as to lead to a significant risk of cancer.
Now put yourself in the position of a professional football player. This job also has a significant long-term occupational hazard: head trauma. The longer you stay on the job, the greater is your risk for concussions and other brain injury, which can lead to the eventual development of serious depression and dementia. Your company (the NFL) currently deals with this hazard by banning you from returning to a game in which you have already suffered a concussion (and admitted it, even though it is probably in your immediate best interest to hide it).
This is a little bit like the power plant telling you to take the day off on any day in which you have developed a tumor.
The solution is surprisingly simple: start putting “dosimeters” in the helmets of every NFL player. These would be simple acceleration sensors, of the kind that have already been featured in a number of academic studies. When the cumulative number of violent blows to a player’s head exceeds certain limits for a given day, month, or season, that player should be forced to sit out (with pay). The impact absorbed by each player’s head can be monitored in real time and in an objective, quantitative way that leaves no room for diagnostic error or player cover-ups.
The best metric for “dose” would be something like integrated acceleration over time (“impulse”), with special weight given to twisting or sideways blows that do more damage. Much of the relevant research already exists. The point is that the goal should be to protect players who are at risk of developing concussions, and not to penalize players who have already received them. A strong “dosimeter” system could very well make an NFL lineman as safe as a nuclear technician.