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The AFL is mandating helmet sensors. How long before the NFL and NCAA follow suit?


Yesterday, the Arena Football League became the first professional sports league to require their players to wear Brain Sentry helmet sensors that warn players, coaches, officials, and trainers of impact on the head/neck that could lead to possible concussions.

If you're unaware of the Brain Sentry product, it attaches to the back of the helmet and anytime the helmet receives an impact that exceeds a pre-set limit, a red light flashes to tell officials that the player needs to come out of the game and be evaluated with the training staff. The sensors not only measure the impact, but also measure the angle of the hit, and can calculate the severity based on the different angles of impact.

According to research shared with the AFL by Brain Sentry co-founder Greg Merril, most "catastrophic brain injuries are the result of second impacts to already concussed athletes. It’s critically important to easily obtain as much information as possible,". The American Journal of Sports Medicine states that as many as 39% of high school and college football players who suffered catastrophic head injuries were playing with concussions symptoms during the time of their injury.

In theory attaching technology like this to the back of helmets makes a ton of sense beyond the AFL, so how long before the NFL and NCAA follow suit?

“For me personally, I think the era of ‘dumb helmets’, in which you have no clue how many impacts that brain inside that helmet has sustained, is quickly coming to an end,” neurosurgeon Julian Bates, who has worked as a consultant with the NCAA and NFLPA, said in an official AFL release. “I think sensors are a big part of the solution for football.”

On paper, this seems like a great idea. Why wouldn't we attach a small sensor to the back of helmets to aid in player safety?

My only concern is for positions like offensive and defensive lineman, or linebackers who smash faces on nearly every single play. Will we be mass-subbing players as the light blinks red play after play? For example, after a linebacker meets a fullback in the hole on an iso play or when an offensive lineman kicks out a defensive tackle on a trap play each time? My point is that there are a thousand different collisions during a football game, and not all of them lead to concussions or concussion like symptoms. 

The Arena League will be a great barometer for receivers and defensive backs, but it isn't going to be the perfect testing ground for how the technology works with offensive and defensive lineman, and linebackers in college football and the NFL, all positions that have a much different role when compared their counterparts in the Arena League.

Even if it isn't a perfect cross section to study for the NCAA and NFL, a lot of coaches, athletic directors and administrators, and trainers will be keeping a close eye on how this plays out on the Arena level.

In the name of player safety, I know 99% of coaches are willing to try nearly anything logical to keep our kids safe, myself included. So this seems like a no-brainer eventually. I can see the NFL using this kind of technology in training camp and preseason sooner rather than later, and the NCAA will likely follow suit, and it won't take long for it to trickle down from there to high school and youth coaches.

So NFL or NCAA, the ball is now in your court.