Football players at Dalhousie University get ‘smart helmets’ that detect impacts

HALIFAX — Football players at Dalhousie University in Halifax are among the first in Canada to start using so-called smart helmets that transmit electronic alerts whenever a player’s head receives an impact that could lead to a concussion.

Each Riddell SpeedFlex helmet — valued at more than $500 each — is equipped with sensors that record individual hits and multiple collisions, data used to compile player-specific profiles.

“What the sensors in the helmets do is give us an impact rating,” says head coach Mark Haggett. “It’s almost like a smoke alarm … It’s going to alert the sidelines and we’ll be able to pull that athlete off the field and assess what that impact was.”

If the intensity of a big hit or a series of collisions rises above a certain threshold, the signal transmitted to the sidelines is picked up by a wireless monitor that displays an alert.

The data can be compiled and studied online through a program known as the InSite Training Tool, which could help coaches prevent injuries during games and practices.

The Dalhousie Tigers are already halfway to their goal of raising $40,000 for the new gear.

Haggett says the high-tech helmets represent another tool used by coaches and trainers to keep track of each athlete’s health. He stressed that the novel technology will not replace strict protocols used on the sidelines to assess potential head injuries.

However, Haggett says it’s often difficult to see what is happening on the field when the offensive and defensive lines lock horns.

“It’s very hard, unless you had a drone going 24/7,” says Haggett, the Tigers’ coach for the past four years. “The sensors will take readings of the things we can’t see.”

The thresholds that trigger the alerts are based on a decade’s worth of compiling and analyzing data from more than one million hits and collisions on football fields across the United States, Riddell says on its website.

Judy Gargaro, a former researcher who specialized in brain injuries, says she would want to learn more about how the thresholds were determined, given that similar impacts can result in very different outcomes.

“There’s so much we don’t understand around concussions,” says Gargaro, director of the Acquired Brain Injury Program at the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation.

“What happens if they don’t have the threshold quite right, and you make a decision to leave somebody in and that turns out to be a bad decision because you’ve relied on the technology.”

Similarly, if the threshold is set too low, that could result in an overreaction, needlessly spreading fear through the team, she says.

Still, Gargaro says she recognized that if the smart helmets are mainly used to complement best practices on the sidelines, then the sensors could prove to be useful tools.

“I would just hate for people to think that this has solved all of our problems,” she said in an interview. “But if it’s framed as another tool in the toolbox to further understand (impacts), then sure.”

Haggett says that’s exactly how the helmets will be used.

“There’s a lot of eyes on the field, but having the sensors gives us that extra level of safety for our athletes,” he said.

In recent years, reducing concussions has become a priority in football and other sports.

Earlier this year, former hockey great Eric Lindros travelled to Ottawa to urge the federal government to develop a national protocol for preventing and treating sports-related concussions.

Among other things, Lindros suggested youngsters should be required to take at least a few months off each year from rough-and-tumble sports to give their shaken brains a chance to heal.

Lindros, whose NHL career was cut short after he suffered several concussions, warned MPs they’d be wasting their time trying to persuade professional leagues to improve their protocols.

The MPs also heard from former college football player Chris Nowinski, who said athletes used to be shamed into continuing to play after suffering a concussion. But the founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation said there’s been progress in persuading athletes that they “don’t need to be a hero.”

In January, the NFL said the number of concussions among its pro football players had dropped 29 per cent in 2018 from the previous season. That was the lowest total since the 2014 season.

The league began releasing concussion data in 2012 as it responded to multiple high-profile cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy among former athletes suffering from the long-term effects of concussions.

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