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Football should embrace technology to prevent, monitor concussions

The CheckLightcap from Reebok, developed in collaboration with the Cambridge electronics startup MC10, is intended to be worn under a helmet. Red lights illuminate after a severe head impact, when a player should be evaluated.handout

Established sports equipment makers and startups alike are developing wearable technologies that will allow athletes to prevent concussions and monitor potentially damaging jolts to the head. Unfortunately, according to a recent Globe report, a lack of awareness as well as longstanding macho attitudes of players and coaches mean there are few takers. At a time when evidence is mounting that young brains are at high risk on the gridiron, this is shortsighted.

College, high school, and recreational athletic leagues should consider mandating some kind of hit sensor in their efforts to keep young players as safe as possible. Professional leagues like the NFL should study the results and follow suit, and star football players could help break down barriers by using the devices.

Massachusetts already has taken important steps in this direction: The Commonwealth has model legislation that requires concussion education for coaches, concussion information forms for parents and players, removing players with suspected head injuries, and written clearance before they return to play.

But such laws only go so far, primarily covering concussions or other obvious, severe head injuries. Experts fear that repetitive, subconcussive trauma is just as likely, if not more likely, to lead to brain damage — although more data are needed to quantify how many hits is too many. That is just the kind of vital medical information that hit sensors could supply. At minimum, the wearable sensors could serve as an early-warning system. But as one data management executive told the Globe, few athletes want to be early adopters for fear of being removed early from a game or being called a “momma’s boy.”

A recent study of former National Football League players, led by Boston University sports brain injury researcher Robert Stern and published in the journal Neurology, found that players who started football before the age of 12 had greater later-life cognitive loss than those who started at 12 or older. Other studies show brain abnormalities in high school football players, even if players did not suffer concussions.


No one sensor is likely to be perfect, and leagues still need to consult with medical professionals and researchers in order to fully understand the hit data recorded. But teams should not hesitate to experiment with the equipment on the market now: These devices cost between $100 and $150 per player, far cheaper than the retail price of many helmets or a set of shoulder pads. Using wearable hit sensors in high-impact sports like football should be as common as strapping on a helmet.