An impact-absorbing helmet, a cushion for artificial turf and a rubberised tether that slows the speed that a head snaps back after a collision were winning products from a research challenge co-sponsored by the National Football League (NFL).
The University of Washington, which developed the helmet, Viconic Sporting for their cushion and the US Army Research Laboratory for the tether will receive up to $1m (£660,000) more in funding from the NFL, Under Armour and GE.
"This is an opportunity to see what the future is going to look like," Jeffrey Miller, senior vice president for health and safety for the NFL, said on 3 December after announcing the awards given under its Head Health Challenge initiatives. Three separate innovation challenges are providing up to $20m (£13m) in research and technology development to better understand, identify and protect against brain injury.
Concussions and the brain damage they can cause have become a crucial issue for the NFL, intensifying after the suicide deaths of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, who shot themselves in the chest. In April, the league reached a settlement of a lawsuit brought by former players over concussions that could cost the NFL $1bn (£0.66bn), as a federal appeals court mulls whether the settlement figure is sufficient.
Tether acts as a shock absorber for the head
This challenge involved practical technologies judged to be close to being released commercially. The tether, first devised for use in knee and ankle braces for soldiers, "utilises an elastic strap that at slow speeds acts like a rubber band, stretching and relaxing easily," said Eric D Wetzel, PhD, of the Army Research Laboratory.
"But pulled very quickly, it resists with a lot more force, about 100 times more force...it acts like a shock absorber,' he said about the tether that runs down from the chin strap and is anchored to the body under the jersey.
"Usually we think about things like ballistics and blast injury, but we're now thinking more about brain injury and concussion."
Jason Kroll, involved in business development for Viconic, demonstrated the dramatically lower impact levels a head would experience landing on turf cushioned by their product.
"There are about 2,000 new artificial turf surfaces installed in North America annually," he said. "An artificial underlayment surface is only installed about 10% of the time, so there is a tremendous opportunity for this technology."
Dave Marver, representing the University of Washington, said their researchers found that helmets they tested were good at protecting against skull fracture but not in mitigating concussion risk.
"So, we have a multi-layer design that does both of those things, reduces concussion risk and protects against skull fracture," he said.
Miller said that while these initiatives could eventually improve player safety for professionals as well as school age competitors, rules changes and concussion protocols were making a difference already in the NFL.
"Over the last three years in regular season games we have seen concussions drop by 34%, and helmet-to-helmet hits causing concussions drop by 37%," the NFL official said. "Nobody is declaring success, but that is a trend."