NEW ORLEANS — When big-money NFL careers are at stake, the use of impact-measuring sensors in football helmets isn't as routine as one might expect.
The NFL Players Association's Mackey-White Committee, which spearheads player safety initiatives, spent considerable time discussing not only the potential health benefits of helmet sensors, but also the legal and ethical pitfalls that come with them in mid-April.
Committee members made it clear the NFLPA wants to pursue placing sensors in helmets as soon as the technology meets its standards. But the union also wants to ensure sensor data isn't used in a way that infringes upon players' medical privacy rights, or creates scenarios whereby careers are arbitrarily cut short by the teams for which they play.
NFLPA President Eric Winston, a Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle, sits on the Mackey-White committee. Winston said players are also wary of how the NFL could use or manipulate sensor data to limit its liability in current or future concussion lawsuits.
"That's extremely concerning," Winston said. "We want (helmet sensors) to make sure that our players are healthy, and if they aren't healthy, let them know why and how we can help train them. But we never want it to be used against them. So as we're trying to protect our guys health-wise, we're also making sure that we're protecting their rights at the same time."
NFL vice president Jeff Miller, who oversees the league's health and safety policies, said the league's focus, as it relates to helmet sensors, is making football safer.
"There has to be protocols in place to protect individual players' health information, and we will certainly respect that," Miller said. "The league's concern is the health and safety of players and making the game better and safer for those who play it. Whether it's identifying injuries, treating or investing in new technology and new science to catalyze medicine for the betterment of players and the game, that's where the league's interest is."
The league and union have managed to work together testing helmet sensor technology, and even agreed on the results of an initial study a couple years ago. Miller and NFLPA medical director Dr. Thom Mayer both said the sensors tested in a collaborative study were not consistently able to measure the magnitude, location or direction of the force from a hit to the head.
"It's exciting technology," Mayer said. "There's new things happening every day, but it's not ready for prime time when it comes to how we make a diagnosis of a concussion ... which is likely to be for the foreseeable future a clinical diagnosis made by the medical staff based on an examination of the patient."
Riddell, which manufactures football helmets and also has developed helmet sensors, said it could not comment on decisions by the NFL and NFLPA not to use its sensors. But in a written response, Riddell said its helmet sensor system (SRS) has already demonstrated it can be a valuable tool at amateur levels of football, including college.
"Highly respected researchers and research institutions have and continue to support efforts to better protect athletes with data from Riddell SRS," the company's statement said.
One such institution is the University of North Carolina, where Dr. Kevin M. Guskiewicz of the Department of Exercise and Sport Science has conducted studies with helmet sensors.
Guskiewicz noted that the NFL's decision to move up kickoffs, thereby increasing touchbacks and reducing returns, was influenced by a study that used helmets sensors on college players. It determined that kickoff returns produced a higher frequency of jarring head hits than other plays.
Guskiewicz said current helmet sensors have "great research utility."
"It all comes down to what the research question is," he said. "Regardless of precision, it's good at counting the number of times somebody's head is impacted."
Colleges and high schools are already using helmet sensors to modify players' behavior, Guskiewicz said.
By looking at a week's worth of data from practice linked to video footage, coaches can see when players invite excessive helmet contact on certain types of plays, and then work on techniques to lessen, if not avoid, such impacts.
Guskiewicz added, "With respect to the issue of protecting data and who has access, we have never had an athlete complain, or be concerned about data being protected. A carefully drafted consent form protects study participants."
Of course, many amateurs are aware their chances of making millions playing professionally are remote, so they may be more inclined to err on the side of protecting their health over their medical privacy rights.
Guskiewicz also suggested the NFL could start out by using only aggregate data — or data compiled from a group of players — to at least get a better understanding of the frequency and force of head hits on various types of plays, or for players at various positions. That way, a player's individual data could remain private.
For members of the Mackey-White Committee, that sounds good in theory. But in part because of the distrust between the NFLPA and the league on a number of issues recently, committee members say embracing helmet sensor technology isn't so simple.
"The committee views this as a positive if used correctly and in the right hands," Mayer said. "But like most emerging technologies, it's always going to raise medical, legal and ethical issues as you figure out how to use it, what to do with it and where to go with it."