Can More H.I.T.S. Save Football?

By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

Va. Tech’s HITS. See video below from Discovery Science

The NFL is facing a daunting number of lawsuits contending it knew of the dangers of traumatic brain injury resulting from concussions but hid that information from its players. Those suits have been consolidated and a local Richmond, VA resident is the lead plaintiff. The widow of former Atlanta Falcon Ray Easterling, Mary Ann, has continued a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the NFL following her husband’s suicide in April. The former all-pro free safety suffered from depression and insomnia following his playing days on the famous “Grits Blitz” defense during the 1970s.  Nineteen Hall of fame players have joined the roughly 2400 other plaintiffs in the suits. Among them are legendary tough-guys Eric Dickerson,Tony Dorsett (and his son, Anthony), Rickey Jackson, John Hannah, Bill Bergey,  Bob Lilly, John Randle, the late Lee Roy Selmon and Randy White.

The NFL is aware of the risks to its fiscal well-being, and has implemented tougher rules on concussions. It has also publicly come down hard on teams like the New Orleans Saints for so-called bounty programs designed to knock players out of games. What is curious is the league’s slow pace in adopting technology to disclose concussive hits on the fly and thus prevent further injury to its players. The technology to do that already exists but  the league has not yet incorporated it into its safety program.

Down the football food chain in major college programs, there has been little reluctance to protect its players from injury  — and themselves from the inevitable lawsuits. Leading the charge is Virginia Tech located in Blacksburg, Va.  Partnering with Tech’s own bio-mechanics lab and Simbex corporation, team physician Dr. Gunnar Brolinson developed a system for measuring football head trauma in real time. The system known as HITS (head impact telemetry system) uses wireless technology to monitor up to 18 players while the game is being played. Composed of six quarter-sized sensors (known as accelerometers developed from car airbag technology)  embedded in the Riddell helmets worn by Hokie players,  a constant stream of information is wirelessly beamed to Simbex headquarters and then to computer monitors on the sidelines. The system even measures cumulative trauma which is also a risk factor for traumatic brain injury.

“We have a pager that alerts me when we receive a high head acceleration,” Brolinson said. “We set the pager at 98g – an impact of 98 times the force of gravity at the Earth’s surface – . We think that’s a fairly significant head acceleration.”

If a hit records above a threshold figure, team physicians or trainers monitor the player for the next play or two. If they detect any sign of concussion, the player is removed from the game and a pre-established protocol is utilized to assess his condition before a decision is made to return him to the game. Virginia Tech has also implemented use of HITS in practice sessions where most concussions occur.

Brolinson says its unreliable to wait for players to complain about head injury. “We frequently find that players sometimes don’t notice that they have a concussion,” Brolinson said. “Most sports related concussions don’t involve a loss of consciousness. This system will generally allow us to determine that the athlete has received a head blow that could result in a concussion.”

There are 1.5 million traumatic brain injuries on a national basis in a given year and about 300,000 are athletes. Football has the largest total,” Brolinson said.  The National Institutes of Health is currently studying a proposal to grant funding to the HITS program. “The NIH has recognized that head injury in children is a national problem,” said Rick Greenwald, president of Simbex, adding that the information being gathered using the football helmets is directly related to a number of other areas as well.

“The military is very interested in understanding injury to their soldiers either from direct impact or impact caused by IEDs,” Greenwald said. He noted that his company is providing helmets with similar wireless telemetry to the military for use in the field.

The use of real time head injury information could aid NFL team physicians too in assessing player injury on the fly. Just this season a player suffered a collapse on the field when his head injury went undiagnosed and then suffered a seizure episode on the plane ride home. HITS provides a way for the NFL to protect what it calls its most valuable assets  — its players. The delay in implementing the system is hard to fathom — and perhaps doubly so for jurors assessing the cases brought by the former players.

Here’s a video on how the system works:

Source: UPI via PhysOrg

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

39 thoughts on “Can More H.I.T.S. Save Football?”

  1. I found this post interesting because the sport I follow is Rugby Union. If you know nothing about Rugby, Rugby is the sport from which NFL devolved (yes, I MEANT ‘devolved’). Imagine an NFL game in which the players wear shorts, shirt, ‘studs’, and mouthguard. That’s IT. There ARE no helmets or pads or shinguards. They don’t even wear ‘cups’ (ouch). The game is played in two 40-minute halfs with one 10 minute halftime. Once the ref blows his whistle, play begins and there are no ‘time-outs’ for huddles and the like. I know of no NFL player who could last physically through an 80 minute Rugby match. Yet, in the years I have been following Rugby, I have not seen any cases of traumatic brain injury, nor have I seen any deaths directly attributable to a Rugby match. Yes, there are broken arms, thumbs ankles and legs, and there is the occasional concussion. The game is every bit as brutal as an NFL game (watch a scrum sometime), and yet the injuries sustained are nowhere NEAR what are sustained in the NFL. Evidently the NFL is going about training incorrectly. I might also add that I have never heard of a case filed against the IRB (International Rugby Board) due to injury or death. These players know what to expect and if an injury occurs, they don’t go whining to the legal system. They rolled the dice and took their chances. Someone needs to tell the NFL players and others that if you go in with your eyes wide open, don’t complain when the obvious happens.

  2. Mespo, another real world example of assumption of risk involves the tobacco industry. They deliberately hid the risks for decades. Back in the old days when they could advertise on radio and TV, the ads touted the health benefits of smoking this or that brand. Early TV ads even had actors in white lab coats, playing the roles of doctors, talking about the brands of cigarettes they preferred. Then when people got lung cancer, their legal teams hid behind the assumption defense. That worked until some whistleblowers came forward, revealing the truth about the hidden and redacted studies.

  3. CLH:

    The argument you make is one of assumption of the risk. Most Americans don’t understand this legal doctrine means you have to knowingly and intelligently assume the risk. It involves venturesomeness. If the risk is not fully disclosed to you or if the risk is downplayed by the defendant the doctrine doesn’t apply. The plaintiffs in the case are contending that the NFL knew the risks were high since at least 1928. They also argue that the league intentionally downplayed the known risks to its players and created a culture of glorified violence to make the risk more acceptable to its employees.

    An example may help explain the difference. Let’s say you’re offered a job as a high steel worker and your job site is a bucket held 10 stories up by a crane. The boss tells you the bucket chain has only failed one time in 20 years and the worker, though seriously injured, was not killed because of safety measures in place. You talk to your family and then take the job and learn in this machismo world taking risks like the bucket job is expected. You are considered “soft” if you don’t ride in the bucket and your fellow workers glorify the bucket guy. Sure enough you climb into the bucket and the chain fails dropping you 10 stories to your death.

    Your family files a lawsuit and you learn the boss was hiding the fact the chain had failed every other year for the past ten years and the injuries to workers run the gamut from broken bones to death.

    Do you think the family’s claim should be barred because the decedent knowingly and voluntarily assumed the risk that resulted in his death? if you don’t think it should be barred, you understand the position of the NFL players.

  4. Football is a dangerous game, there is no doubt about that. I just don’t care. With the exception of kids pressured by parents to play against their will, there is always a choice. You choose to play a dangerous game, you assume the risks associated with it. I played football from pee-wee, through Jr. High and High School, and even some amateur intramural leagues afterwards (USMC team). I love me some football. And if a player gets carted off after a nasty hit- well, I just cheer for the hit itself, if not the injury. Choices and consequences, that’s what it’s all about. The NFL chose to ignore or play down risks associated to players, and will face the legal ramifications. Those players chose to play, and will face the health ramifcations. I have no sympathy at all for people who whine about getting hurt, when they know good and well what they are getting into.

  5. i played a little football (srsly i played very little) in jr high school in the early 70’s. one of the drills was called the bullring. it doesn’t surprise me they have a lot of head and spine injuries.

    i don’t watch much sports, just don’t see the point.

    and the guy in the stripped shirt who keeps going over to watch tv on the sidelines during pro-football games. he’s really watching roadrunner cartoons.

    beep beep

  6. This is an excellent post. Really informative. I have a question about the class action suit. Even if you assume the NFL hid evidence of the catastrophic effects of head injuries and behaved in a horrendous manner; would any of those players (the plaintiffs) have chosen not to play professionally if they had known all of the evidence? And if so, wouldn’t that play a significant role in determining damages. Also, if the player had chosen to do something else, would it have been nearly as lucrative as an NFL career?

  7. Oro Lee and other objectors,

    The helmet thingy is a bad idea. Tests needed.
    Repeated battery against the frontal cortex ain’t good. Study shows frequent light blows equal few harder ones in effect.

    As for boring. I thought that was a personal taste. Not a question of stats. If you had lots of kids, they’d vote you down all the time. Daaaaad! That stinks.

    Now we could discuss head to head (smile) on football versus soccer all day if you like. Seeing two teams line up and know it means grunt and groan is not exciting. Too little testerone perhaps in me. But to see a masterful soccer team move a ball from person to person, if done well, is an art. To see soccer artists like Maradona pre-fat (in head too) dodging and doing the unexpected is like watching Wayne Gretsky in his day. But those are exceptions.

    But I’m a goal freak, even tho’ I played little league baseball
    So both are not my favorites. The antics are about the same. Choreographed and rehearsed in front of mirrors.

    Wake me when the next WM is starting.

  8. RE: Soccer is boring?

    2012 Superbowl: 111million US TV viewers; an additional 56 million world viewers

    2010 Men’s World Cup Final: 24 million US TV viewers; an additional 595 million world Viewers

    2011 Women’s World Cup Final: 14 million US TV viewers; an additional 236 million world viewers

    US football is to world futbol as the musical “Oklahoma” is to a Mozart opera.

    or . . . . demolition derby is to NASCAR.

  9. Messpo,

    Thanks for the study.

    Deficient and speculative but points out a problem area. Would helmets type boxing sparring helmets be in order? I think so.

    Would better trained atheletes improve things? Yes.
    And what explains the same injury rate for head to head as head to ball? Odd.

    I don’t defend soccer. It is boring. I’d rather see kids play tag football instead.

    All pumped up sports are basically an ill of society.
    We should all be playing squash, tennis, orienting, in non-contact aerobic sports solely at first level competition.

    When money enters, so does evil.

    Who said that? I said it now.

  10. Yes, I thought of mentioning head collisions in soccer. But the purpose there is not to crush the other, but to move the ball.

    Shall we skip soccer. OK for me.
    It is so ho-hum at most levels (WC excepted) so that watching ants is more interesting.

    As for late ingress TBI, CAN anybody forget Mohammed Ali’s shaking hand with the Olympic torch.

    If we can channel our needs here, and defeat profit as a driving force, then there might be hope for us.

  11. Idealist, I wonder about soccer too. Those head hittings may also be causing damage.

  12. I gave up watching football decades ago. It was too violent for my taste. Then my nephew started playing. Wish he’d find something else to do. His brother likes chess. : )

  13. football starts in elementary school. the youngest kids would be better off playing tag football but they don’t. Every team, including elementary, middle school and high school should also have the HITS program,

  14. Wonderful…… Did the military start first or the football programs…… Great article Mark…

  15. The NFL is aware of the risks to its fiscal well-being, and has implemented tougher rules on concussions.
    fiscal well being was the point of recognition?

    nothing before that?????

    enjoy that ‘game’

    milder TBI effects often don’t become apparent for months or even years.

  16. We have other nationally loved sports: baseball, basketball with no incidence of concussions. Here in Europe women’s hockey and men’s soccer are loved as well as expressions of competition.

    All without concussions. Convert football to a tag sport and see if it survives. This is not war, but it produces corpses anyway. Time to stop.

    For those who get their kicks out of pain sports, try throwing yourselves down the back steps a few times and see if it helps the itch.

  17. They need to do something to maintain the gladiatorial aspect of football, an aspect I am fully cognizant of and shamelessly support. There is nothing quite like that hit that makes everyone watching wince in sympathy, usally with a “Oh, s**t!” thrown in. I <3 me some smash mouth football.

Comments are closed.