As criticisms about concussions and player safety become more prominent, Duke is partnering with the National Football League to address the problem.
A recently announced partnership between Duke's Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the National Football League and an NFL-run nonprofit called Football Research, Inc. aims to stimulate innovation in the development of new helmets and protective equipment for players. Under the new "HealthHeadTECH Challenges" program, an oversight committee will review proposal ideas and then choose several of the possible projects for future research, potentially giving awards up to $1 million. The CTSI will work closely with funding recipients to develop their ideas.
The program is part of the NFL's "Engineering Roadmap"—a five-year plan to "create incentives for helmet companies, manufacturers, small businesses, entrepreneurs, universities" and others to focus on developing better protective equipment, according to the website.
The program is goal-oriented—with the final intent of producing tangible products that will result in improved player safety in football.
“Our job will be to identify the best research and to array a group of research projects and turn them into a development program that results in helmets, pads and practices that make the game safer to play," said Dr. Barry Myers, director of innovation at the CTSI and a consultant for the NFL Players Association since 2009, who is chairing the oversight committee.
Myers stressed that Duke’s dynamic nature, as not only a major research university but also a strong financial institution, allowed it to be a prime place to conduct his research.
“You need people that know how to make things, you need people that understand the problem from a clinical standpoint and all of that has to face the realities of business economics," Myers said. "This is where Duke excels."
Although the danger of concussions has been acknowledged by the NFL for more than 20 years, traumatic brain injuries have recently received augmented publicity and attention. The rate of incidence of diagnosed concussions has been on the rise—with a 32 percent jump from the 2014-15 to 2015-16 season, the NFL reported.
Myers provided insight on why the number of concussions has been on the rise and what might be done to reduce risk.
“If you watch how players actually play football, it’s a very different game and what we’re learning is that a very significant number of concussions are actually head to shoulder pad hits," he said. "So we may prevent head injuries by making a better shoulder pad. And that’s an actionable engineering idea."
Other aspects of the game, such as the surface it is played on, are also being investigated. Too soft a playing surface might make it easy to twist an ankle, but too hard a turf can result in more concussions—thus, a middle-ground is optimal, Myers noted.
Ultimately, he explained that the social benefit of team sports has to be balanced with the potential harmful value to the players.
"The right question is the social one," he said. "Are the injuries that come with youth sports worth the social and personal benefit of team sports? If we are going to be a society that values the benefits of youth athletics, then we have to do our best to mitigate the downside effects of that participation. That's our goal."