Player safety in American Football was a top priority the day before Super Bowl LIII at the annual NFL 1st and Future pitch competition in Atlanta. In its fourth edition presented by Arrow Electronics, one company and two data scientists walked away with funds for innovative ideas focused on health, safety, and performance. The winners also walked away with coveted tickets to the big game.
Taking place at the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Institute of Technology, finalists competed in two categories: Innovations to Advance Athlete Health and Safety Competition and the NFL Punt Analytics Competition. Companies in the first category included Nobo (Milwaukee, WI), SOLIUS (Seattle, WA), TackleBar Football (St. Paul, MN), TendoNova (Atlanta, GA) and TopSpin Technologies LTD (Detroit, MI/ London, Ontario Canada). Data scientists in the second were John Miller (Fort Worth, TX), Jeff Rayvid (New York, NY), Alex Wainger (New York, NY) and Halla Yang (Wilmette, IL).
TopSpin360 won in Innovations to Advance Athlete Health and Safety with a patented training device that dynamically strengthens a users neck to help reduce concussion risk. Founder and CTO Theodore Versteegh said that a lot of concussions in the NFL are caused by stress from rotational movement. The device also works with a custom training app on a smartphone that records time and date stamps. Alex Wainger and Halla Yang won in NFL Punt Analytics. Reasons for this category are because there are as many as nine punts per game and return punts are dangerous when it comes to concussions. Wainger proposed removing the 45-year-old rule that holds the kicking team on the line of scrimmage until the punt. Yang proposed awarding a five-yard bonus on a fair catch, changing the allowed coverage on receptions, and requiring helmet sensors that can directly monitor physical deceleration.
The NFL boasts some of the most dedicated fans and players of any sport. The league averaged 15.8 million viewers during the 2018 regular season, excluding London broadcasts, and this year marks its 100th season. But the physical activity has caught a lot of heat in recent years due to its sometimes fatal and degenerative nature of the game, leading to many health and safety concerns for its players.
“General public know, you’re in your 20s and 30s, eating right and exercise will have some impact but it’s really more of the long-term benefits, right,” said Karen Powell, PharmD and M.S. “Because you don’t want to get into your 40s, 50s, and 60s and have all these chronic diseases that you’re trying to deal with and take all these medications. So it’s the same thing with players. We’re asking them to be superhuman with what we want them to do and the type of performance we want to see on the field. So, we have an obligation to try to develop, whether it’s over data analysis, changing the rules, improving the equipment, or something, to keep them from, or mitigate at least, that progression into those physical and mental type of illnesses and chronic disorders that they’re dealing with because of participating in the game.”
Since launching its Play Smart. Play Safe. campaign in 2016, the NFL has directed even more funds and resources towards ventures and research to do just that, totaling over $100 million dollars. As one of the panelists, Keith Werle, Managing Director at the Business Analytics Center at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business explains it, it’s at the fate and future of the NFL and American Football as a whole.
“The business case to do all of this innovation for safety and head injury, it goes to the very survival of the league,” said Werle. “The center of their business is the game. And if players continue to get injured and all that, right now a lot of former players and coaches, they don’t know if they want their kids growing up and playing this game. So we’re seeing fewer and fewer kids coming to the game and staying in the game. The idea is that enrollment in youth football is down by something like 28 percent a year. Well, think about that, pretty soon we won’t have anyone to play the game. So it doesn’t just go to the people watching it but what happens is if people aren’t playing the game, the quality of the game will go down and you will begin to lose in franchise. So it’s more than just, revenue here and there. It’s the very survival of the game over the next 10 to 20 years.”
During a special panel discussion between Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner, Rick McKay, President & CEO of the Atlanta Falcons, and Larry Fitzgerald Wide Receiver for the Arizona Cardinals moderated by Scott Hanson of the NFL Network, Fitzgerald made a notable point on why this work must start at the NFL level. “The NFL sets the standard. Whatever new innovations are adopted by them will trickle down to college level, high school, and youth,” he said.
Program participants used Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) as a home base prior to the event. The business incubator is a foremost leader in graduating startups that bring next level enterprises into the world. And being connected to Georgia Tech, it has a strong grasp of the breakthrough innovations necessary to nurture and protect growing minds and bodies.
“Innovation has its place in just about any sector,” said Kirk Barnes, HealthTech Catalyst at ATDC. “I think particularly when you look at the importance of youth sports and high school sports, I think ultimately they want to make it to a platform like the NFL. I think if we’re able to use technology to help improve the safety and health risks of those players, we can make sure kids have healthy eating habits, healthy mental habits and that they’re not sacrificing themselves to actually participate in the game. I think this is a great event that pulls out the best of technology, the excitement of the Super Bowl and then the NFL, something that kids dream about being here. And I think this is also a possibility for kids to dream about building something that makes NFL players better or just athletes better. I think this partnership, this collaboration between ATDC, Georgia Tech, academia, startups, and NFL, and of course, if it puts Atlanta on the map and Georgia on the map, it’s even better.”
Photo Credit: Please credit Georgia Tech athletics/Danny Karnik