Gridiron Gumption

January 30, 2007

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No professional sport has embraced technology quite as American football has. Here, only days before the sport's pinnacle game, the NFL Super Bowl, we highlight some innovative "technology touchdowns" that have made the game safer, more competitive and more entertaining — both for players and for fans.

Technology is playing an increasingly large role in American football, for players, coaches and fans: FieldTurf in lieu of AstroTurf; radio transmitters in the quarterback's helmet; advanced knee repair techniques; and the cornucopia of statistics, camera angles from ground level to goal post, the yellow "first and 10" line, split screens and slow-motion cameras that have all become an integral part of any football telecast.

The National Football League (NFL), it seems, is always on the lookout for ways to make the game more convenient, more competitive, more entertaining and safer — for players and fans. No professional sport has embraced technology quite like American football has. Let's look at a few recent breakthroughs.

Stadium on a Tray As we reported in October, when Cardinals Stadium is completed next fall, it will be the first sports facility in North America to feature a removable-tray grass field and a retractable roof. The Arizona team's football field rests in a 12-million pound, 234-foot-wide by 400-foot-long steel tray set on rails powered by motors so that it can be moved out of the stadium when it is not in use. The idea is to maintain/tend the field's grass outdoors in the gigantic steel tray, then slide it back inside on game days.

The $355 million, 160-acre stadium's insulated metal skin is composed of panels separated by vertical open-air gaps that allow natural light to enter. The retractable fabric roof will give the 63,000-seat stadium an open-air feel even when it is closed.

A Bite Out of Concussions There is a reason it is sometimes referred to as smashmouth football. If inadequately cushioned, jawbones can be pushed into the base of the skull and even the brain cavity.

Using a study conducted by Biokinetics & Associates, sports-equipment maker NY Giants' Jeremy Shockey loses his helmet when hit during Philadelphia Eagles playoff game in January 2007.jpgRiddell set out to develop a helmet to help reduce the risk of concussion, or Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI). Biokinetics & Associates, an independent engineering consulting firm in Canada, used footage of on-field collisions and recreated these impacts in a controlled laboratory to better quantify human tolerances to MTBI, according to Riddell. The research showed that seven out of 10 on-field concussions occur from blows to the side of the head as opposed to the top or front.

The equipment maker then used this research to create Riddell's Revolution. Now worn by about 20 percent of NFL players (Australian-rules football still shuns protection), the helmet has been proven to reduce risk of concussions by up to a third. Although high-tech foam padding helps, the standout goody lies in the extended sides that protect the jaw from off-center hits — the most common cause of in-game head injuries.

Similar, last October Wired reported, "Bad things happen when the jaw slams shut, causing vibrations from a hard hit to resonate throughout the skull." This dangerous blow can disrupt brain function and activity, causing a concussion and/or other skull damage.

Dr. Gerald Maher, the New England Patriots' team dentist since the late 1970s, makes custom mouthpieces for dozens of players. The Maher Mouth Guard holds the jaw so that vibrations don't transmit from the lower mandible to the skull.

According to Maher, no player has ever gotten a concussion from a side hit wearing his device.

Cold Shoulder Although football players are typically fit and strong, they play in conditions where field temperatures sometimes reach 120 degrees, especially during summer practices and early season games. In fact, summer heat causes most player deaths.

Clemson University use shoulder pad AC.jpgResearchers at the University of Florida's College of Medicine designed unique shoulder pads with airflow channels that can be connected to a tank of cold, compressed air on the sidelines. Simply put: air-conditioned shoulder pads.

To keep cool, both college squads (Clemson Tigers) and pro teams (Indianapolis Colts) use the product, made by Williams Sports Group.

Thermometer Pill CorTemp temperature pill, PIC via HQ Inc.jpgThen again, sometimes football is also a cold-weather sport, and players are often unaware they are overheating. So HQ Inc. designed and now manufactures its CorTemp — a thermometer in pill form — which players can swallow pre-game. Originally developed in the mid-1980s by NASA so the space agency could monitor the body temperatures of astronauts on the Space Shuttle, the ingestible temperature-sensing technology is being applied to transmit core body temperature to trainers on the sidelines.

The Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars are two teams that have used the tiny device, which is also becoming popular with college squads.

Green Super Bowl This year, the NFL is buying certificates that will offset the amount of carbon generated through electricity use at the big game at Dolphin Stadium this Sunday. This effort, combined with the planting of hundreds of native tree seedlings, aims to make the event carbon-neutral, meaning it will have a minimal effect on the environment. Although this is the 14th year the NFL has hosted a Super Bowl with green elements (e.g., recycling souvenirs) linked to the festivities, this is the first time the organization is buying certificates to offset carbon emissions, according to Forbes.

Before the event, the NFL worked with the U.S. Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to calculate how much carbon will be emitted during the football game (excluding carbon emissions created through transportation to the host city).

There is enough demand for green events that the United Nations Environmental Program recently held a conference on sports and the environment where participants discussed topics ranging from the impact of building design and how to harvest rainwater to methods of trash disposal.

Runner-Up Startup venture EndGame Technologies has designed novel computer modeling software to assist NFL coaches with critical play-calling decisions — the kind that often determine the outcome of the game, MIT Technology Review noted last fall: Should a team punt on fourth down — or go for it? Or attempt a two-point conversion after a touchdown?

The software, called ZEUS, is designed to answer such questions, and thus help coaches make on-the-fly decisions by calculating the consequences of each decision in a matter of seconds. The software was created by mining historical NFL data and developing distribution curves of success rates for individual actions, such as how far a running back carries the ball. Coaches could use ZEUS at any point in the game, by entering a set of variables, such as the score, field position, possession, down and time remaining on the clock. Then the user enters two play-call options and the software analyzes each one separately, playing the game to its conclusion 100,000 times, considering a different scenario in each iteration.

Unfortunately, ZEUS is still illegal under NFL guidelines, as the league does not permit computers on the sidelines or in the coach's booth on game day.

Is there such a thing as too much innovation in football? We wish to remind our dear readers of the contemptible quickly defunct XFL. Combining WWF wrestling with American football? Nothing good could possibly have come of it, right?

Then again, consider this: The Skycam — an innovative "birds-eye" technique in Skycam at an ESPN-broadcast Auburn University football game, PIC via Wikipedia.jpgwhich the camera hovers directly over the action on the field — and systems like it had been in limited use since the mid-1980s, when Garrett Brown (inventor of the SteadiCam) first patented the technology. Until the mid-1990s, progress was slow due to limitations in computer and servo motor technology. The XFL, as disastrous as it was, helped popularize the Skycam, which, of course, later went on to be adopted by, and become a staple of, NFL telecasts.


Less Pain, More Gain by Sam Jaffe Wired, October 2006

The Riddell® Revolution Helmet Product Fact Sheet

Air-Conditioned Football Pads Developed By UF Scientists Could Help Players Stay Cool University of Florida press release, Jan. 26, 2004

Temperature Management System

How to swallow a thermometer Science Blog, Jan. 11, 2007

Greening the Super Bowl by Alex Davidson Forbes, Jan. 19, 2007

Pigskin Revolution

Revolutionizing Football by Brittany Sauser MIT Technology Review, Aug. 31, 2006

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