In the wake of Ohio State's lineman Kosta Karageorge's apparent suicide, questions are being raised again about the safety of football and the impact of concussions on the lives of both pro and amateur players. One of the focuses among researchers has been helmet technology — with a host of new designs being tests in hopes of making the game safer.
Neurobiologist Ray Colello might have the most out-there idea yet: He wants to put magnets in helmets to slow the impact of a head-on collision between two players and reduce the risk of a concussion. The magnets placed inside each helmet repel each other rather than attract — giving an ample buffer space of time between the heads of two colliding players.
"If Chris Johnson, one of the fastest players in the league, is running at 20 miles an hour, gets in a hit, and his collision stops in 12 milliseconds, his brain will get 120 G of force," Collelo explains. "But if you can stretch that impact time from 12 milliseconds to 17, just adding 5 milliseconds will get that G force down to 84" — which is below the 100 G threshold it takes to cause a concussion. He discovered neodymium magnets — the strongest magnet commercially available — could reduce the G force from 120 to 94 in the same test that the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment uses for all NFL-approved helmets.
Despite finding the approach novel, Tim McGuine, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin's Health Sports Medicine Center, remains skeptical. "I've been contacted by 5 or 6 outlets telling me about a new researcher who has it all figured out, and they've got the design, and they'll fix all this," says McGuine. "So many things are so promising in laboratory settings and just fall apart in the practical field. While it's great that we do this, making sure every opponent you played had the same magnetic helmet, that'd be asking for quite a bit." Governing bodies like the NFL or NCAA aren't likely to mandate that everyone to use the same helmet until the science and safety risk is "airtight", he adds.
Then there's the problem of cost — already, the estimated 1.1 million high school football players in the US spend 33 to 99 million altogether to recondition their helmets every year, as helmet manufacturers recommend you to (on top of the $160 to over $400 pricetag of a new helmet). Younger athletes who need protection won't be able to afford even an extra addition to cost.
For now, McGuine thinks there's better ways to reduce injury — and it all starts with changing how the game is played. "Making sure you don't tackle with your head is one of the most effective interventions," he says. "Limiting the amount of contact you have in practice. Emphasize tackling instead of hitting. Pulling a player down as opposed to knocking them down with your head and face," It's the cheapest method according to McGuine, but it's also the most effective. "Only hit once a week at game time, not at practices," he says. "And most very good coaches have adopted that for years."