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As more evidence proves the devastating health effects of repeated blows to the head, a spotlight is shining bright on sports such as football in which players have a high risk for concussions.
Though criticized by some for ignoring the issue, the NFL said it is committed to learning more about head health and the impact of play. It believes one of the best ways to ensure the longevity of its sport — as well as all sports — is to make sure athletes are equipped with the latest and most advanced technologies to prevent traumatic brain injuries.
"The health and safety of our sport is one that we want to talk about," said NFL Senior Vice President of Health and Safety Policy Jeff Miller. "We want to address it."
On Thursday, the NFL and its partners GE and Under Armour announced the three winners of Head Health Challenge II. The competition called on companies to invent ways to improve safety in sports by helping to prevent head injuries.
"As technology improves and the science improves, as material science improves, we want to catalyze that," said Miller. "We want to bring the future forward faster, and we want to see the applications of these technologies and this science and this innovation to our playing field and hopefully to other sports."
The contest is part of the $60 million Head Health Initiative, which was launched in 2013 by the NFL and GE to advance diagnosis and treatment of concussions. Under Armour and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have also contributed money towards the project.
"This is bigger than the NFL," said GE's healthy imagination director of community and government strategy, Alan Gilbert. "We want to learn more about TBI (traumatic brain injuries) because we think it will teach us and help us understand ALS more, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's."
The contest comes just ahead of the film "Concussion," a biographical sports medicine drama about pathologist Bennet Omalu. Omalu. who is played by actor Will Smith, is credited for trying to spread awareness of degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players, in spite of the NFL's trying to block his research and deny the existence of the disease.
Miller, who hasn't seen the film, said the NFL had no impact on the script, production or anything to do with the movie. While they were approached via email by Sony twice to have meetings, none ever occurred.
"The broader point is if that movie brings some spotlight around the health and safety of our sport, we're here to talk about it," he said. "We're here to talk about the changes that have been made on the field, how that's going to have a trickle-down effect in the way the game is being played at all levels, the scientific technological advancements that are made through efforts like the one (on Tuesday), and our efforts going forward to train youth coaches to improve the way we coach tackling both for youth and high school players, and the ways that were going to make sure people are more aware of the risks associated with the sport."
He added that he believes that people know more about the health risks of sports, the more they can weigh whether they want to participate.
"The lessons that are learned from playing our particular sport, the resilience, the teamwork, the being able to get up when you're knocked down, are something that have tremendous transcendent value for kids," he said. "That play and our game and learning those lessons at a young age will continue and help them throughout their lives."
Out of almost 500 applications, seven finalists were given $500,000 each to further develop their ideas. The three final winners have the opportunity to get up to $1 million if they fulfill specific benchmarks towards commercialization.
VICONIC Sporting created a protective turf underlayer that softens impact but doesn't slow down players on the field. The thermoplastic urethane material is better at absorbing the strong G-forces and impact energy that occurs when a person falls on the ground.
"No one wants to run on sand on the beach even though if you fell you don't hurt your head on it," he said. "We have to balance the playability and the impact."
The technology came from a surface used in 65 percent of cars to prevent head and limb injuries during crashes, said Viconic Sporting Director of Development and Engineering Joel Cormier. Cormier said he hopes that the layer can be used in sports fields and playground surfaces, as well as in the military to help soldiers who are hit hard with blast impacts.
The Army Research Laboratory introduced a rate-dependent tether that connects the head to the torso. While the head is free to move at lower speeds, it prevents the head from snapping or whipping when a high-speed, high-force event occurs.
The University of Washington and its commercial partner, VICIS, developed a new helmet that protects against fractures and concussions. Instead of just a hard outer layer, the helmets are created with many different layers that better absorb impact and fit better. Previous helmets mostly have a hard outer layer that mainly prevents fractures, but not traumatic brain injuries.
VICIS CEO Dave Marver hopes that the project, which has been in development for two years, will help address the concussion problem.
"Sports are an important part of society," Marver said. "Our kids play sports. They learn from them. They build character and relationships and lessons. Unfortunately all sports, not just football, carry concussion risk: football, lacrosse, hockey, soccer as well. We wanted to solve the problem for kids so they can participate safely in sports."