American football has been under a tremendous safety microscope for some time but the conversation around concussions and, specifically, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition, has become more pronounced — both in the media and on the big screen in the film “Concussion.” Several high-profile players have died in recent years and CTE has been one of the contributing factors. A Frontline study showed that 95.6 per cent of deceased players tested positive for CTE. In one widely-publicized case, former San Francisco 49ers and Wisconsin Badgers linebacker, Chris Borland, retired at the age of 24, citing concern over his long-term health.
On the professional level, the National Football League (NFL) has worked to assuage concern through rule and equipment changes — but the responses from the league have been inconsistent and clunky. Science and data points to concussions and CTE as a major issue, to the point where the league originally donated $1m, in 2010, to the brain bank that carried out the research in the Frontline report. The NFL then awarded a $30m grant in 2012 to the National Institutes of Health to help study the disease, only to renege on its agreement due to its apparent aversion to what the findings may reveal.
In November 2014, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), in partnership with the US Department of Defense, launched the Mind Matters Challenge, a $4m educational grant challenge aimed at changing concussion safety behaviors. Part of the challenge is to encourage colleges and universities to develop ideas on how to better address the issue.
Though there are significant protocols to identify and treat concussions, players may not exactly know the symptoms. But football players at the University of Arizona have taken a page from the evolving world of virtual reality and helped develop a new app that could help players identify concussion symptoms.
BrainGainz is used by placing a smartphone into Google Cardboard. The athlete is then virtually taken to Arizona Stadium (in Tucson) and goes through a series of game-style plays. They are then repeatedly asked whether they would like to stay in the game or come out to give their head and body time to recover. The longer the athlete says in the game, without allowing recovery time, the more damage is inflicted on the brain. The app then begins to show the athlete how they should be feeling if they do, in fact, have a concussion.
University of Arizona linebackers Jason Sweet and Scooby Wright are part of the app’s team. Sweet, a molecular and cellular biology major, says athletes instinctively “want to compete and stay in the game” and believes that to change this, the app must not only be educational; it’s got to be cool.
“How are we going to make this appealing to college football players? How are we going to improve education?” asked Sweet, rhetorically. “We’re going to make the coolest, most intense, most realistic educational virtual reality app ever. That’s our goal.”
Ricardo Valerdi, associate professor of systems engineering at the University of Arizona, and part of the project added that “staying-in-the-game” mentality results in underreporting of head blows which can have serious short and long-term consequences.
“A concussion can change your life, and this is a public health issue. We need to better inform athletes, coaches, trainers, and parents on how to identify a concussion.”