Concussion monitoring helmet technology

Football is the most common sport for head injuries, and billions of dollars are poured into sports medicine to try and keep players safe, making concussion tech a profitable industry. 

Concussions were first a concern of the sport over a century ago, and head injuries have become a hot topic in sports in recent years, with Hollywood films, NFL athletes and lawsuits bringing attention to the issue. A $765 million dollar settlement was reached between the NFL and around 4,500 former players in 2013, and retirees with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and other mental ailments potentially caused by football. 

Today, football helmets are becoming more ingenuitive in design, geared toward maximizing performance and safety. Helmets with built-in impact detection systems now help monitor impacts by tracking and reporting the force that players take to the head.

Most football programs in Georgia don’t use the hardware. The football programs at Georgia State, Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State all have opted out and focus on NCAA guidelines and coaching on proper techniques to prevent head injuries. 

Sensors in the helmet determine the force and direction of any impact to the helmet, then send the data to a handheld device called an Impact Response System, which alerts staff which players may need evaluation.

With impact monitoring tech it is important to note the keyword: monitoring.  These helmets don’t prevent or treat concussions, but they can inform coaches and doctors how hard players are getting hit and who athletic trainers should look at. 

Concussions occur when the brain hits the inside of the skull. Studies show that after suffering one concussion, the likeliness of a second or even third are amplified, and that higher rates of concussion can lead to a serious brain disorder called chronic traumatic encephalopathy and Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which slowly takes away a person’s ability to stand or walk. These studies also show that this is all the more likely for athletes, and especially football players.


Minimizing head injuries

Another factor to consider is that the helmet itself also plays a role in head injuries. The NFL releases a ranking of different helmet models, including designs that aren’t considered safe enough for the league and have been banned. 

The rules of the game have also changed to reduce concussions in football. Specifically, targeting rules have become stricter, resulting in immediate ejection for the duration of the game for the first offense. The NFL has implemented steep fines to protect players, such as a spearing and helmet-use fines that start at a minimum of $26,739 for the first offense and $53,482 for the second offense. 

Cost is also a concern with the new technology. Riddell is the country’s largest helmet manufacturer, and their InSite monitoring system costs $150 per unit for each player and $200 for the alert monitor for the training staff.

Here’s how many concussions the Panther football team had for the past four academic years:

  • 2015-16: 10
  • 2016-17: 19 (1 of which was not caused by football)
  • 2017-18: 15 (3 of which were not caused by football)
  • 2018-19: 12


Bob Murphy, associate A.D. for sports medicine for Georgia State athletics, said that the football team doesn’t use the tech due to budget concerns, and because research hasn’t yet shown data that justifies the high cost. Additionally, he thinks there’s still a lack of “hard conclusions” in research. Force isn’t the only factor in head injuries and the force required to cause a concussion varies greatly between each player. 

“Primarily, we follow the NCAA recommendations – limiting head impacts as much as possible, teaching proper tackling techniques,” Murphy said.

The Georgia State team also tries to use the safest helmets possible based on the NFL’s helmet ratings, which includes certain models that players are prohibited from wearing, according to Murphy. 

Currently, the players use a variety of Riddell and Schutz models, all of which Murphy said are on the approved list. 

Georgia Southern and the University of Georgia both use the detection systems, while Kennesaw State University and Georgia Tech don’t.

Georgia Tech instead uses ProTec, a helmet cover that helps diffuse the force of a blow to the head, according to Eric Avila, an associate athletic director for the Yellow Jackets.

Whether the systems and the data they provide are worth the cost may depend on the size and budget of the football program itself. Georgia State’s football program has run a $4-5 million deficit every year for the past four years, so there simply isn’t excess money to spend.

However estimates show that one-third of concussions still go unreported and undiagnosed. Often players may not want to miss games, seem vulnerable, hurt their draft stock or just don’t understand the signs of an actual concussion. In the documentary “Next Chance U”, star running back Isaiah Wright was a perfect example of this issue, denying his symptoms and pleading with his coach to let him back into the game after suffering a severe concussion.

This new technology could eventually be worth the investment as a way to identify and diagnose injuries, but the full potential for the gadgets may still be untapped.