"This is not a diagnostic tool." That's what Riddell, the country's largest manufacturer of football helmets, kept emphasizing during a presentation of its newly developed InSite head-impact monitoring system. The fact it would throw this disclaimer out there isn't surprising, really. After all, the topic involving concussions in the NFL is one that's been massively debated by many different entities, inside and outside of the sport, over the past few years. Most recently, PBS debuted a documentary titled League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis, in which it delved deep into the "hidden story" between brain injuries and the National Football League.
But the problem itself goes considerably deeper than that: Here in the United States, the game is ubiquitously played across youth, middle school, high school, college and, of course, professional levels. And while both the NFL and NCAA have made rule changes in order to "protect" players by trying to minimize the number of hits above the neck, the same can't be said for lower-level leagues -- not to mention, there's only so much that can be done in a game which requires body-to-body contact at full speed during 15-minute quarters.
So how does Riddell come into play in all of this, you ask? Well, at an event in New York City, the company gave us an inside look at the InSite Impact Response System, a monitoring tool based on its own Head Impact Telemetry System and Sideline Response System technologies. Essentially, this consists of three major pieces: the Player Unit, which is packed with sensors and attaches to the inside of the helmet; the Alert Monitor, a hand-held device that sends impact results to the sideline staff with a player's name and jersey number; and the Player Management Software, which is used to view data gathered from players, allowing the coaches to see the head-related health history of each one. The InSite can record multiple injury points every time a player suffers a hit, detecting anything from the amount of force caused by the contact to where exactly it took place and the duration of it.
What's crucial here is the threshold being used to measure whether the Player Unit will communicate to the Alert Monitor that there's been a hit worth looking into, and if the type of impact could have caused some sort of trauma to the head. To determine if that's the case, Riddell says it is using information collected from its Impact Response System since 2003, including nearly 2 million data points to date. This could be an issue for teams looking into using InSite, as they won't be able to set their own thresholds and have to trust that the research from Riddell is accurate enough to foresee a problem regardless of the player's size, height or weight.
"Not every hit is catastrophic, and there is no magic helmet. It's all about how well the players are coached," said Jason P. Mihalik, Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center co-director from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at an InSite Q&A panel. As we stated earlier, Riddell wants to make it very clear that its monitoring system is but a risk-reduction tool, "an extra set of eyes," and if the system is to help minimize the risk of concussions, the human touch from the coaching staff is going to be a crucial part of it.
Using the Player Management Software, coaches and team doctors can see in detail which players are taking the most hits to the head, during practices and over the course of the season. According to Westlake High School trainer Scott Blatt, he and his staff found this particularly helpful because it made it easy to find members of the team who stood out from the rest. After seeing how much impact a certain player was taking, they could sit down and discuss a change in the tackling technique and, hopefully, reduce the amount of such blows in the future. For reference, two out of 18 final alert counts ended up being serious ones, and there was never a situation where an athlete suffered a concussion and InSite's sensors failed to identify it.
The cost of the InSite is $150 per Player Unit and $200 for the Alert Monitor (covers up to 150 players), which can turn out to be a little pricey for teams outside of the NCAA or NFL. Currently, the InSite has no presence in the pro league, with many programs using the system on a day-to-day basis at the youth level. Still, Riddell President Dan Arment told us this is his company's contribution to making football safer for everyone, adding that the goal "is that, through this process, people will feel comfortable with the sport."