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Toward NFL brain injury “dosimeters”

December 22, 2010

[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.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2010 10:56 pm

    I think this is brilliant, but that if they tried this they’d find that pretty much all of the players would be benched pretty quickly, and that would be the end of the NFL. Except for the kickers, of course. Just from my casual watching on TV, it seems like at least one player is hit awfully hard on every single play, and that’s got to add up pretty fast.

  2. Archer permalink
    January 3, 2011 2:07 am

    Are you kidding? Did you ever see the late hits or hits some kickers and/or punters received?

    The problem is, you can’t add up the forces and sensor data. It’s a hard-hitting sport, especially for wide receivers, not so much for Tackles or Full Backs.

    You’d rather have to set the maximum dose realistically, so 2/3 of the players are almost gone after the third quarter, or you’re setting the max dose so high nothing will effectively change. It’s not so hard to see whether somebody was knocked up badley. There will always be people putting their life on the line for an anual income of more than 1 million $ and these guys are the priviliged ones with the best health care.

    Oh, and while we’re underway, let’s end boxing fights after 2 and a half rounds 😉 What about soccer? Those malicious headers?

    I like the idea and it’d be an interesting thing to toy around with. I’m not a naysayer. But I don’t see this actually happening.

  3. Glen permalink
    January 5, 2011 10:18 pm

    I like the idea, although there would be a lot of resistance if it benched a lot of players.

    It would be interesting to see how coaches would adapt to managing head trauma as you do other injuries or the play clock. You could see a fair bit of continuous innovation as coaches would get a competitive advantage from having less players benched than other teams, so lots of small improvements could make the game quite a bit safer over a number of years.

    There would also be a perverse incentive to smash the star players of the other team as often as possible to try to get them taken out of the game.

  4. Alan permalink
    January 7, 2011 8:49 pm

    I think it is a good idea, but will likely face resistance and might end up in all players sitting. Maybe instead of a total limit just set a high limit. So 85 g’s in one impact would require you to sit. It won’t solve all the problems but maybe it will stop people getting 2 or 3 concussions a season.

    Or how about this, if the NFL really cares about player safety just install the accelerometers in helmets and track the players over the season. It might give us a better idea of what is worse, many small impacts or one large impact. Although I have heard that both are bad.

  5. jacobus permalink
    January 8, 2011 1:46 pm

    Well, well, well, they’re already doing it!

    At something called the US Army All American Bowl.

    • gravityandlevity permalink*
      January 8, 2011 2:06 pm

      Wow, nice. I had a feeling that this must not be a new idea.

      Now they just need to start using them.

  6. chuck permalink
    October 4, 2011 3:27 pm

    more technology is not the answer. just get rid of facemasks. players will stop using their head as a weapon


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