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Product Design For A Beloved American Sport

Tue, 09/25/2012 - 8:32am
Meaghan Ziemba, Associated Editor, PD&D

Football season is once again upon us, and crazed fanatics are trash-talking their rivals, sporting their favorite teams’ gear, and betting on their lineups for fantasy football. However, there is a dark shadow looming over football that not too many people are aware of, and product design is in the running to play a major role in the future of the sport.

This past May, New England Patriot’s linebacker, Junior Seau, was found dead in his California home with a gunshot wound to his chest; a similar scene happened in February of 2011 when former Chicago Bears’ safety, Dave Duerson also suffered a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.  Duerson left a note behind requesting that his brain be donated to science so it could be studied

Seau and Duerson are only two of the many football players who have taken their own lives. The list also includes: Ray Easterling, O.J. Murdock, Andre Waters, Terry Long, and Shane Dronett, all of which showed varying signs of depression that has been suggestively linked to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that results in behaviors similar to  Alzheimer’s disease.

According to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, CTE can be found in the brains of “athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic sub-concussive hits to the head. [It] has been known to affect boxers since the 1920s. However, recent reports have been published of neuropathologically confirmed CTE in retired professional football players and other athletes who have a history of repetitive brain trauma."

Individuals suffering from CTE experience the progressive degeneration of brain tissue, as well as the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau. Symptoms of the disease include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia. These symptoms are not always apparent right away. Some of them can show up months, sometimes decades after the initial occurrences of brain trauma.

Currently, the NFL is facing a class action lawsuit joined by retired players who say the league didn't do enough to protect them from brain injuries. Many states have adopted laws that restrict school coaches from using players who have had concussions. It is clear that football helmets are in a desperate need of an upgrade and a complete redesign to ensure the safety of not just the professionals, but high school and college players as well.

One man in particular, Bill Simpson, has become obsessed with designing and manufacturing a safer football helmet. Straying away from the traditional blueprint, Simpson has turned to the aerospace industry and composite fiber materials. The lining of Simpson’s helmet is a single, thick core designed to hug the head like a glove. He also removed all of the air pockets in the helmet’s interior to decrease the amount of air due to its bad shock-absorbing characteristics.

While Simpson is keeping a lot of details about what types of materials he is using, a lot of players have been willing to try out his product. Question is: Will it be enough?

The hits in football are only getting harder as advancements in conditioning, training, and work-out equipment continue. Players are bigger, faster and stronger, making head and body injuries more frequent.  That goes with other sports as well. Would you want to protect the net against a 100+ mile-per-hour slap shot from Zdeno Chara; or get a fist to the face by eight-division world boxing champion, Manny Pacquiao? Without the proper safety gear, you may opt for the sidelines.

Even though these sports may be great to watch, is all the crazed hype behind them really worth the dangerous consequences that the players are experiencing after they hang up their uniforms? I’m sure the Romans had a blast giving the thumbs up or down that determined the fate of the gladiators as they entered the arena, but it was stopped for a reason – apparently death as a form of entertainment is something to be frowned upon. For now anyways.

Think about the revenue that each of these sports brings in. Do you honestly think the big wigs on top of the totem pole will be so gracious to give up on their profit margins just to ensure that the participants can function years after they call it quits? Maybe that is why their contracts are set for millions of dollars – the more money offered, the less the guilt for permanently damaged brain cells and the possibility of a life-long stay at the local nut house.

Football, along with the other full-contact sports, is here to stay. No matter how hard certain authorities try to change the guidelines to make them safer, injuries will always happen – some career ending; others life threatening.

What is needed is a revolutionary design that will ensure the safety of players of all ages, while at the same time maintaining the excitement that comes with the hard hits and fast shots. Bill Simpson seems to be on the right path.

What are your thoughts? Email your comments to meaghan.ziemba@advantagemedia.com, or post your comments below.

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