19th Century Gridiron Game Embraces 21st Century Technology

19th Century Gridiron Game Embraces 21st Century Technology

American football is a game of tradition–as exemplified in last weekend’s induction of players into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. But it’s also a game constantly chasing the next thing. 

A century ago, with little protective equipment and no forward pass, football’s brutal game was too frequently fatal. President Theodore Roosevelt, recognizing the game’s risks and rewards (and with a son playing freshman football at Harvard), called a White House summit of several top collegiate coaches, which ultimately led to sweeping reforms that put the sport on the path to the modern game.

Football, especially at the NFL level, remains a physically demanding and often punishing sport. But for generations of young men, it’s also been a structured outlet for their natural aggression; an opportunity to learn about self-sacrifice, discipline, and teamwork; and for many fatherless boys, a chance to have strong male mentors and role models.

Those who think that all these young men, deprived of the outlet of a sport like football, will suddenly lose their inborn tendencies and take up universally peaceful pursuits may need a refresher course in human biology and psychology. And even if they head toward a different sort of game, there’s no guarantee they’ll remain injury-free.

Not all men are inclined to enjoy or excel at non-contact sports. Besides, many of those activities–such as skiing, skating, horseback ridingsnowboarding and skateboarding, not to mention sports with hard projectiles, like lacrosse, and for women, field hockey–also feature high rates of injuries, including concussions, with usually far less potential for lucrative college scholarships or pro careers.

But with the ongoing controversy about concussions in the NFL–which, perhaps not coincidentally, has deeper pockets than the above sports–new technology is coming in that will at first enhance the game for players, coaches, and viewers, and may down the line provide information to improve playing techniques and equipment design.

The Hall of Fame Game on Sunday, August 3, between the Buffalo Bills and the New York Giants, marked the debut for a specially-engineered version of Microsoft’s Surface tablet. Twenty-five have been given to each team, with 13 on each sideline and 12 in the coach’s box. These allow players and coaches to have immediate access to high-quality, full-color aerial photos of plays–including the ability to draw on them with a stylus–rather than flipping through binders of black-and-white printed photos.

No, the teams can’t check their Twitter or send an email from these tablets, which operate on a secured wireless network in stadiums, and there’s no video–not yet, anyway. And if the tablets go down for one team, the other one doesn’t get to use them anymore.

Speaking to the Associated Press, Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, who’ll be going paper-free for one exhibition game as an experiment, said, “Some of us dinosaurs don’t change easily, but I think it has a chance to be a benefit.”

This weekend’s fifteen preseason games begin tonight, so keep an eye out for what effect this new feedback could have on play.

The Surface deal could also benefit Microsoft, which, according to a story at Website Engadget, recently took a $38 million hit on the Surface Mini, which was developed but never released. Bill Gates’s empire also announced last month that it was cutting 18,000 jobs.

If Microsoft has its way, though, this is only the beginning.

According to a blurb on a web page for the Surface (AKA “The Official Tablet for the NFL”): “Surface is working with the NFL to develop multiple apps that will help coaches and medical staff make the game safer for players and allow teams to be more productive. Teams are currently testing concussion management, medical records, and playbook apps.”

Also on the horizon, starting with the first regular-season Sunday game on September 7, players will be fitted with quarter-sized sensors under their shoulder pads. Designed by Zebra Technologies in Lincolnshire, Illinois, the RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips–which are sturdy and able to survive laundering–communicate with receivers installed at 17 NFL stadiums.

The stadiums will be hosting mostly Thursday-night games (carried on CBS and NFL Network), featuring each team at least once.

Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, Zebra CEO Anders Gustaffsson said, “You can see how far they run; you can see how quickly they run in the first quarter versus the fourth quarter. You can see three times out of four, they will break left versus right.”

For the time being, the data is for the benefit of the networks, and by extension, the viewers, for commentary and broadcast overlays, but won’t yet be available to the teams themselves.

Quoted at the Website Mashable, NFL spokesperson Joanna Hunter said: “Although there are benefits for the teams, too, they won’t be receiving this data right away for competitive reasons. Moving forward, we believe it could be rolled out to help teams evolve, scout and increase the knowledge of performance.”

Asked about the sensors’ potential to prevent injuries, Hunter told Mashable: “We’re not sure how that would happen just yet–we’ll defer that to doctors and researchers–but we’ve heard from medical professionals that it could be used in that way.”

According to a June piece in USA Today, these efforts may already be underway. University of North Carolina researcher Kevin Guskiewicz, who works on safety committees for both the NFL and the players’ union, explained that “two companies are ‘fine-tuning’ their head accelerometer devices based on researchers’ feedback in anticipation of wider deployment in the fall, with expansion to all 32 teams possible as soon as 2015.”

Guskiewicz told USA Today, “We’ve done a lot of validation work over the past 18 to 24 months using some of these devices. It’s really important to know what information is telling us and how to interpret it and how we can provide meaningful data back to the player, the athletic trainer of the team physician, the strength and conditioning coach, whoever that may be.”

Some players are concerned that this information might affect contract negotiations, but especially as concerns head injuries, the injured person is not always the best judge of his condition, and neither is a coach on the sideline in the heat of the moment.

Boston-area general practitioner Dr. Randall Bock was part of a “hackathon” team working on high-tech helmet sensors.

Speaking to Breitbart Sports, he said, “Some of the sensors might have some place over time trying to verify the harder, deeper hits in the cranial area and document them. So, if there’s a cloud-based sensor system, and/or concussion testing, there will be some sideline monitoring.

“So, you don’t necessarily have to rely on an overeager coach or a reticent player. So, in a proactive way, sensors can provide that arbitration that will give some validity.”