Keith Mitchell, a former NFL player, suffered from paralysis and near-constant pain for years after retiring from the sport.
“Imagine 300-plus pounds of human flesh ramming into you at full-tilt,” said Mitchell, who played for the New Orleans Saints, the Houston Texans, and the Jacksonville Jaguars, in an interview with Fast Company. “It’s like getting hit by a sword or a bat.”
Stories like these have prompted the NFL to begin investing in new technologies to prevent such injuries. Moreover, in the newly released film, Concussion, starring Will Smith, the NFL is portrayed as attempting to suppress research into the brain damage suffered by professional football players.
In 2013, the organization partnered with GE and sports clothing company Under Armour for a $60 million series of challenges focused on new approaches to diagnosing, treating, and preventing brain injuries. The latest challenge, unveiled in March of this year, offers $500,000 in prize money to the team that develops the most promising new material that can be incorporated into sports equipment to reduce the impact of collisions. About 125 research teams entered the competition, including some that are well-known in the field of material sciences but have little or no awareness of the NFL.
The five finalists announced earlier this week include the University of Michigan, which developed a lightweight, multilayered composite material that can be used to limit the force of multiple and repeated impact events; and Corsair Innovations, a textiles company that uses foam-based materials and tiny, spring-like fibers to repel impacts. Each of these teams were awarded $250,000 in funding.
The researchers do not aim to prevent concussions altogether, an extremely challenging feat, but to mitigate the force and impact of a hit, said Jeff Miller, senior vice president of health and safety for the NFL. For some former players, like Mitchell, that may not be enough to protect future generations.
The NFL hopes that these new materials won’t just benefit football players, but also other athletes, marines, motorcyclists, and others at high risk for head injuries. We’ll work with the challenge winners to see what the other applications might be,” said Miller. In addition, Under Armour will explore ways to incorporate the technologies into sports clothing and equipment, including knee pads, shoulder pads, and helmets.
Mitchell is far from convinced that the NFL should be focusing its efforts on this kind of research and development. Instead, he says the league needs to dedicate its funds to retired players who lack access to treatment and care, as well as in educating junior players to better understand their limits.
“It’s great to spend money on this kind of research,” said Mitchell, who now runs a foundation called Light it Up, which offers yoga and meditation training to other former athletes. “But let’s do more investment in care. We go through the extreme of putting our body through trauma, and so you need extreme measures to heal.”