Remarkably reluctant though it’s been to admit its role, the NFL has been devastated by research showing the debilitating effects of repeated head trauma on players, what’s referred to as chronic traumatic encephalopathy. College players are not immune. Nor are high school players.
In an effort to enhance protection of student athletes at Flagler Palm Coast High School and Matanzas High School, the district today presented a plan to the school board that would replace current football helmets with a new technology that arms helmets with sensors and enables coaches and trainers to know in real time who is getting hit in the head and with what severity. That sort of data, coaches hope, will help add a layer of protection for students by more quickly and empirically alerting trainers when an athletes must be checked out and tested for a concussion.
The technology is either expensive or not at all expensive, depending on how you look at it. “When are we going to get it? Very soon,” Superintendent Jacob Oliva said. “Cost-wise, it’s very minimal, we can outfit every helmet in our school district for probably under $30,000,” money that would be made available through the district’s half-cent sales surtax, which pays for technology in the district. But the coaches said each helmet would cost $500. FPC has 120 players, Matanzas has 80 to 90. That means the total cost would be $100,000.
The distinction was not made clear during a briefing on the new helmet to the Flagler County School Board Tuesday evening, as board members were under the impression that the total cost would be $30,000. Districrt spokesman Jason Wheeler later specified that the $30,000 is for the system’s “technology,” that its, its backbone. The helmets themselves would be an additional cost. “We don’t yet have a total. We rotate helmets in and out as they reach their life limit,” Wheeler said. “We’re not buying 200 new helmets.”
The presentation was made by Matanzas head football coach Robert Ripley and FPC head coach Tom Moody.
“Part of the presentation today,” Oliva said, “was to bring to a level of awareness that hey, this technology exists, we’ve got a culture of innovation in our school district, we have both football coaches at both high school teams that work together, which I think is also something that’s unique. We can talk about a rivalry on Friday nights but at the end of the day these two coaches are dedicated to all the students.”
Ripley and Moody were eager to acquire the helmets, describing the uncertainty coaches and trainers have had to work with when it comes to head injuries. “We did not know this kid took a hit, and next thing you know he shows up at school the next day—well I had to go to the doctor last night because I was sick,” Ripley said. “If a kid gets hurt the first week of practice because he has poor technique and we can coach him and fix that, we’ll have him in week 11, and that’s another thing that this does.”
Live helmet sensors as an early-warning system for concussions.
“Trainers can only do so much,” Moody said. “They follow where the ball is going. We had a kid this year, we didn’t even see it. Something like this will automatically let us know–check that kid.” He added, “I have unfortunately have witnessed a kid and a teammate die before, you know.”
The battery-powered helmet has five impact sensors—on the front, the side, the back. It’ll give off live data, trackable by coaches and trainers in hand-held devices. The users will be certified. When a specific helmet takes a collision, it’s immediately identified, and the severity of the hit registers on a scale of 1 to 10. “Not only are we going to update our safety initiative, but we’re now going to be able to track these helmets and know exactly what they’ve bene through from birth to expenditure,” Ripley said.
Nick Clark, a Flagler County resident and Riddell representative who was also at the meeting, described the helmet as the next step in player safety in the company’s 87-year history.
The helmet is activated only when it’s worn—when all sensors are being touched by the skull. So when it’s thrown on the ground, it won’t register as if it were struck during a game. It covers 150 players within a 100-yard span. If both teams on the field have the helmets, their data will not be visible one to the other. “I’ll leave you at this,” Clark said. “Fifty percent of concussions that happen go undiagnosed. It’s a huge number. So what this does, we’re trying to make the game safer, and what Flagler County is about to do is pretty astonishing and I’m very proud to be part of it.”
Riddell will be training the district’s coaches and trainers on the equipment. He cautioned: the helmet is obviously not a medical device. It’s merely an alert to trainers to check out their players.
The initial conversation between coaches and administrators was to place the sensors only on high-impact players, until coaches started saying that if it’s good enough for high-impact players, it should be good for all. “So we’ll be able to outfit all of our helmets in Flagler County with these sensors,” Oliva said.
“Here’s the buzz words that everybody wants to hear, benefits for Flagler County,” Ripley said. “We’ll be pioneers, we’ll be the first district in the state of Florida and the southeast region to be completely impact, ‘InSite’ and collision-monitored, and that makes us leaders in student-athlete safety and reaffirms the importance of safety towards football with first-class technology and equipment. You can’t find a better helmet, or a better initiative in the realm of safety for our kids.” Riddell’s helmet is called “InSite.” (The helmet is used in some other districts in the state, but only in certain schools, not district-wide.)
“You’re going to receive a lot of data. Now it’s what are you going to do with it,” board member Andy dance said, raising the question about such scenarios as a sever hit in the heat of a game, at a critical time. What then? Would a star player be pulled out of the sensors raise an alert? The answer is a matter of protocol.
And in any case the trainer has the last say regarding student safety—not the coaches. “They take the helmet, it’s out of our hands, and we treat it that way,” Ripley said. “And we’re progressive, it’s not 1960 anymore where it’s OK for a guy to get out there to get banged up. It’s not that important because he’s seen too many people get sued and so have I.” Moody was standing next to him. “It’s not worth it. What we’re trying to avoid here is the roll-down effect from the NFL to college, that someday we’re going to be retired and we don’t want to get sued for little Johnny who can’t breathe right now because we put him out there in a helmet that was not up to par.” But, he cautioned, “this is not concussion-proof by no means are we ending concussions, but we are now going to be more aware of the collisions and the impacts that our students take.”
“From my regard I think parents will be happy to know that there’s an extra layer of information about the hits that their students, that their children are taking,” Dance said.