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Can Technology Make Football Safer?

Jan 05, 2017   |   by Nicholas Schmidle   |   The New Yorker

A high school in Fort Lauderdale is using everything from state-of-the-art helmets to [Dartmouth-student-designed] robots to prevent head injuries.

On October 4, 1986, the University of Alabama hosted Notre Dame in a game of football. Notre Dame had won the previous four contests, but this time Alabama was favored. It had a stifling defense and a swift senior linebacker named Cornelius Bennett. Ray Perkins, Alabama’s head coach, said of him, “I don’t think there’s a better player in America.”

Early in the game, with the score tied, Bennett blitzed Notre Dame’s quarterback, Steve Beuerlein. “I was like a speeding train, and Beuerlein just happened to be standing on the railroad track,” Bennett told me recently. Football is essentially a spectacle of car crashes. In 2004, researchers at the University of North Carolina, examining data gathered from helmet-mounted sensors, discovered that many football collisions compare in intensity to a vehicle smashing into a wall at twenty-five miles per hour.

Bennett, who weighed two hundred and thirty-five pounds, drove his shoulder into Beuerlein’s chest and heard what sounded like a balloon being punctured—“basically, the air going out of him.” Beuerlein landed on his back. He stood up, wobbly and dazed. “I saw mouths moving, but I heard no voices,” he later said. He had a concussion. After Bennett’s “vicious, high-speed direct slam,” as the Times put it, Alabama seized the momentum and won, 28–10.

Following college, Bennett was drafted into the National Football League. Between 1987 and 1995, he played for the Buffalo Bills, and appeared in four Super Bowls. During his pro career, he made more than a thousand tackles, playing through sprains, muscle tears, broken bones, and concussions. I asked him how many concussions he’d had. “In my medical file, there are probably six.” The real number? “I couldn’t even begin to tell you.” Fifteen? “More.” Twenty? “I played a long time,” he said. “Every week after a game, I got some sort of headache.”

In 1996, he signed a thirteen-million-dollar contract with the Atlanta Falcons. He received weekly injections of Toradol, an anti-inflammatory drug. “It was magic—it made me feel like I was twenty-four again,” Bennett said. He helped carry Atlanta to the Super Bowl—his fifth. (A more dubious distinction: his team lost in every one.) In 2000, at the age of thirty-five, Bennett retired and moved to Florida. He lived in a hotel in Miami’s Bal Harbour area, worked on his golf handicap, and vacationed with his wife and friends in Europe and in the Napa Valley.

Several of Bennett’s football peers were having a far tougher time. Darryl Talley, a former Bills teammate, suffered from severe depression. Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, had become a homeless alcoholic; he died, of a heart attack, in 2002. Three years later, Terry Long, another former Steeler, committed suicide by drinking antifreeze. Andre Waters, a former Philadelphia Eagles safety, killed himself with a gunshot to the head.

MVP robot on the field
The robots, covered in black foam, are known as Mobile Virtual Players, or MVPs. Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker.

A neuropathologist named Bennet Omalu autopsied Webster, Long, and Waters, and detected a pattern: each had a high concentration of an abnormal form of a protein, called tau, on his brain. Scientists associated tau buildup with Alzheimer’s, but that disease ravaged the elderly. This was clearly a different pathology, and in a 2005 paper Omalu called it chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., which he categorized as a degenerative disease caused by the “long-term neurologic consequences of repetitive concussive and subconcussive blows to the brain.” ...

... Studies show that sports practice sessions are a “major source” of concussions. In 2015, nine St. Thomas football players suffered season-ending injuries in training. [The head football coach, Roger] Harriot decided to ban tackling at practice, and he also introduced the robots, which were designed by four Dartmouth engineering students, in collaboration with Eugene (Buddy) Teevens, the college’s football coach. Teevens was worried about the future of the sport. Since 2009, the number of boys between the ages of six and seventeen who play football has fallen by nineteen per cent. In 2010, Teevens outlawed tackling during Dartmouth practices. He told me, “It’s real simple—the more you hit, the more you get hurt. And I’m in a unique position to add hits to someone, or take them away.” He went on, “If we don’t change the way we coach the game, we won’t have a game to coach.”

Harriott and George F. Smith, St. Thomas’s athletic director, learned about the robots through an alumni parent, and asked for a demonstration. In the spring, two prototypes arrived by FedEx. The robots, called Mobile Virtual Players, or M.V.P.s, stand just under six feet tall, weigh a hundred and ninety pounds, and look like pillars of black foam. Some players laughed when they saw them, but they stopped when a coach squeezed the trigger on a remote controller and an M.V.P. took off, moving at about sixteen miles an hour. “It just annihilated one of our guys—ran him right over,” Smith recalled. Kivon Bennett told me, “Those things are no joke.” Smith ordered two, at a price of sixteen thousand dollars. (The prototypes were sent off to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who wanted to give them a try.) Smith said of the robots, “You’re taking one player who can get hurt out of the equation, but, more important, your helmet is not hitting another hard helmet—it’s hitting cushion. The helmet-on-helmet is the dangerous part.” St. Thomas can afford such experiments. The football program is huge—the varsity team alone has a hundred players—and its training facilities rival those of top colleges.

The robots arrived in late summer. Adam Bolaños, a science teacher and an assistant coach, put them in an equipment room, among non-motorized pads of various shapes and sizes, and plugged them in. Two days later, the M.V.P.s were fully charged, and Bolaños and another assistant coach joysticked them onto the field. When an offensive lineman reached for the remote, Bolaños jerked it away and said, “Do you know how expensive these are?”

In one drill, a robot simulated a running back breaking into the open field. Ameer Riley, the defensive coördinator, watched a defensive back lunge ineffectually at the M.V.P. “We don’t tackle by diving!” he yelled. “You gotta drive through this guy.” Riley exhibited the proper form: lowering his shoulder, wrapping his arms around the dummy, then wrestling it to the ground. A minute later, the defensive back dragged the M.V.P. down. Riley exclaimed, “There you go!”

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