The Silicon Bowl: How Biometric Tech Is Improving Football

It wasn’t a great year for the 49ers, and it was arguably a worse year for the Raiders—although they have been bad for such a long time that it no longer comes as a shock. Just two years removed from the Super Bowl, and one year after a tipped ball prevented their return, San Francisco had a season filled with controversy and ended up losing their coach to the college ranks. Not a very memorable season.

However, off the field, the Bay Area is still making a huge impact on the game. The mobile tech world and social media scene that was forged in Silicon Valley continues to impact the way we watch and follow the game. Not just because we’ll all be tweeting about commercials or a boneheaded coaching decision, but because football is using mobile biometric technology to improve its safety. It’s even allowing coaches to better analyze player health.

biometric tech is improving football
The Niners aren’t in the game, but San Francisco is still impacting the Super Bowl thanks to social media. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Using Biometric Tech To Gauge a Player’s Health

To get the obvious out of the way, the NFL has generally only been concerned with player safety inasmuch as it affects on-field performance. It’s a billion-dollar industry, after all, and the players are just a part of that. Thanks to some high-profile tragedies, though, public opinion about how players should be treated has begun to change. Consequently, the NFL and NCAA realize they have to change too, if for no other reason than self-preservation.

How Biometric Tech Is Improving Football

This is where wearable technology comes in. Teams are discovering how to use GPS and other tracking devices to figure out the total movement of their players. 14 NFL teams use this data to figure out stats like:

  • How far players have run. A running back who rushes for 100 yards runs (easily) three or four times that much between cutting, dodging, running around defenders, leaving the backfield, and even just sprinting back to the sideline between plays. And while 1200 feet may not seem like a lot, the intensity with which they run is. Then there’s the force with which they are stopped.
  • Rate of impact. Almost every football player draws contact on every play, whether it is just a bump while running out, the brutal trench warfare at the lines, a common tackle, or a bone-jarring hit. Researchers are beginning to understand the impact of every play, and that can allow coaches and trainers to know if players are getting hurt worse than they are letting on.
  • Running speed. It’s not always readily apparent when a guy is slowing down, but being able to track these minor variations in performance can often make the difference between winning and losing.

Of course, players and coaches will resist this. You can already hear football players and broadcasters talking about how they shouldn’t sit down because some iPad tells them to. That’s understandable; these are highly competitive, elite athletes. But the game is changing, and if it is going to survive, it has to become safer.

Football is already in a safer place than it once was thanks to technologies like the Axon program. Axon simulates real-life game conditions and allows players to hone their reflexes, slow down the game, and understand it better—without the repetition of contact in practice. A lot of experts think the repetition, more than the big hits, is what ultimately leads to brain disease. This system has already been approved by Andrew Luck and Marcus Mariota, a hard quarterback duo to argue with.

Concussion prevention and mobile tech

Concussions are the biggest issue in the NFL right now, not counting nonsense controversies like Deflategate. The league, along with college ranks, has to figure out a way to reduce concussions or they risk petering out—as more parents pull their kids from playing football. Chronic brain trauma has a way of negating the hope that Johnny becomes a quarterback, despite his talent for throwing toys great distances since the age of three.

Recently, we have seen the rise of biometrics in eye-tracking technology and embedded in mouth guards to help detect concussions. These might not reduce incidences immediately, but they can give researchers a better sense of how and when concussions occur, and that can help the game alter in small ways to increase prevention.

That’s the kind of mobile health technology and biometrics that we all can use now. Biometrics help us better understand ourselves, and adjust accordingly to improve our health. We aren’t going to be playing in the Super Bowl this Sunday but, thanks to mobile technology, we’re all part of a new frontier in learning how our body works.

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