Question Everything: What’s being done to improve athlete safety?

CBS Boston

January 10, 2023

BOSTON — The harrowing injury to Bills Safety Damar Hamlin has once again put athlete safety into the spotlight. While player protection has come a long way from leather helmets and wool padding, we’re asking: what’s being done to improve player safety?

WBZ-TV sought out the input of innovators and experts to find out.

“I was very devastated when I saw it because it was a routine play that I as a former safety and other players have made several times before,” said Dr. Myron Rolle.

There may be no one more qualified to talk about football and health than Rolle — the Harvard/MGH neurosurgeon is a former NFL safety, who uniquely knows the risks from both the medical and athletic perspectives. 

He thinks a reckoning is coming.

“Cardiac health will be under the microscope going forward, even youth leagues,” Rolle said. Improving safety starts by talking about it, he added. 

“I think the next step in education and further awareness is talking to youth leagues and youth sports, whether it be lacrosse, softball, baseball, and talk about the risk of cardiac arrest, sudden death on the field.”

Another key part of the equation is innovating safety equipment. Kyle Cunningham co-founded Unequal Technologies out of Philadelphia more than a decade ago. The company makes patented protective apparel and accessories for athletic and tactical purposes.

Among some of the best-selling equipment: shirts with cardiac pads woven in. They are specifically designed to protect against commotio cordis — that’s when a blow to the chest interrupts the heartbeat. It’s what many doctors believe happened to Damar Hamlin.

“We were the first to create a pad that was statistically significant,” Cunningham said. 

Tufts University peer-reviewed the product and found it to be the best. It also meets USA Lacrosse standards for heart protection. The governing body mandated that beginning in 2022, all high school boys lacrosse players and all high school girls lacrosse goalies must wear chest protection. Cunningham believes other sports—and other athletes—will adopt the new technology.

Joe McLaughlin, President and CEO of MVP Robotics knows all about adopting new technology. He recalled when Dartmouth Head Coach Buddy Teevens asked for help keeping his players safe.

“The only way he could think of getting them to game day and keeping them safe was to eliminate all tackling in practice,” said McLaughlin. A motorized, remote control tackling dummy was the answer.

“They actually ran, collected a bunch of data to support what they were doing, and found it reduced concussive injuries by 67% and all injuries by 80%,” said McLaughlin.

He adds that the “MVP Sprint” is now used by ¾ of NFL teams, more than 100 colleges, and 300 high schools. Still, with almost 900 college football programs around the country and more than 14,000 high school football teams, there’s a long way to go. Experts we spoke to said it will take a comprehensive, focused approach to keep improving safety.

As Dr. Rolle noted, “Do all these things up front so you can enjoy the benefits of sports down the line. It’s a tough situation to think about right now, but I still think sports have a lot of value to young men and young women around the country and around the world.” 

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