The surprising problem with a new concussion prevention technology

A story published last week in the Los Angeles Times spotlights both the help technology can offer in the fight against traumatic brain injuries, and the surprising resistance that such technology can, and does, encounter.

The paper reported on a “wireless alert system” that can be placed in football helmets. Sensors placed inside the helmet trigger an alert on a smartphone or a similar device carried by a coach or trainer on the sidelines if the wearer suffers a potentially concussion-inducing blow to the head. The system, according to the paper, “gains data from five sensors placed on a plastic-like, paper-thin lining placed on top of helmet padding. The sensors measure linear and rotational acceleration as well as the duration and location of a hit. A computer chip in the helmet transfers data to a hand-held alert monitor – typically carried by a trainer – via a low power signal similar to Bluetooth.” The system can be adjusted according to the level of play (middle school v high school v college).

One might have imagined that the main problem this raised for high schools was financial – the systems cost about $150 per unit. When one LA area high school offered the sensors to all 120 of its football players earlier this year, however, only 20 stepped up to purchase them. What surprised even the school’s head athletic trainer, however, was the reason: according to the LA Times “parents worried about sons being pulled from games and missing playing time. Several said they dropped the sensor topic after their sons declined to wear one.” The trainer told the paper, “In the society we live in, the knowledge is there but the parents, I don’t know – it confused me.”
The paper goes on to note a more successful experiment with the sensors at a different school. In that instance, however, players were not given a choice about wearing them.

As a parent and an Oregon traumatic brain injury attorney this story is both heartening (the technology) and slightly dispiriting (the reaction of some parents). The lesson here may be that a technology like this can only gain widespread acceptance if it becomes mandatory (and, as such, confers no real or perceived competitive advantage or disadvantage to anyone on the field). It also serves as a reminder that in our sports-obsessed culture some people can, unfortunately, lose sight of where the fact that their own children’s safety has to be a top priority – even if that sometimes means putting the game second.

Los Angeles Times: New helmet technology could help in spotting potential concussions