By Jonathan Learmont
With the revelation that a record 291 concussions were reported during the 2017/18 NFL season, the search for ways to make American football safer has been brought into focus. Spawned from the NFL’s $60 million ‘Engineering Roadmap’ investment strategy, the HeadHealthTECH Challenge awards prizes for innovations that help to achieve this goal. Research and development of an elastic based material called C3 has seen Cardiff University receive £90,000 of funding, with the aim of 3D printing it into a structure usable in American football helmets.
Unlike the foams normally used for helmets, C3 is formed from a polymer-based powder that is fused into shape with a laser. This is then arranged into a multi layered structure which is designed to stiffen as the collision force increases, meaning energy is absorbed in a way current helmets are not designed for.
Dr Peter Theobald, one of the project leaders and a Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Engineering, said “The problem with American football at the minute is that the helmets are tailored towards the high energy impacts but not the low impact ones”. 3D printing allows Dr Theobald and his team to develop a structure of C3 that is potentially ideal for all types of impacts present in American football at a lower cost than using traditional methods. The award of funding makes them the first non-US team to win money directly from the NFL’s HeadHealthTECH Challenge.
Historically, American football helmets have been designed mostly to protect players against catastrophic injuries such as skull fractures. But research in recent years correlating higher rates of the neurodegenerative disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, with repeated head injuries in contact sports has highlighted the potentially long-term damage of even minor concussions. Symptoms of CTE occur years after the initial injury and include erratic behaviour, thinking problems, depression and memory loss. The disease has also been linked with cases of dementia later on. It is still not well established whether the risk of CTE can be increased by a single powerful impact as much as a series of impacts over time.
Recognition of CTE and concussions is also problematic. CTE can currently only be diagnosed with certainty through autopsy, but a brain scan that highlights tau, a signature protein of CTE, has been developed for this purpose. This method was confirmed as the first to identify CTE in a living person successfully in 2017 after the passing of ex-NFL player Fred McNeill. Technology funded by the NFL which spots minute protein biomarkers in the blood that increase after concussion is also being tested, with the aim of being able to formally establish the severity of a concussion in under an hour.
The NFL’s push for scientific innovation to improve safety is already having positive effects. Since 2018 almost three quarters of players are using the latest helmets, as opposed to less than half in 2017. Concussion rates have fallen by 24% in a year. Yet due to concerns that players may adopt tactics that increase helmet to helmet contact as perceived safety rises, the ‘helmet rule’ has been introduced which imposes strict penalties on players lowering their heads to initiate contact. Concerns about concussion have also opened up the discussion in rugby regarding headgear that aims to reduce collision impact, as scrumcaps are not designed for this purpose.
A better understanding of concussion might fundamentally change how contact sports are played in order to keep athletes safe from disease later on, but some may fear new rules that could be introduced would harm their sport in other ways.