Wearable health-fitness sensors are poised to change how we live, work, and play. Their effects on industries and organizations will be positive and negative depending on their frames of reference. In this context, sports involving repeated violent impacts may face existential threats in the coming years. Wearable technologies already on the market and on drawing boards will soon make the NFL’s concussion protocols seem like sticks, crystals, and Medieval incantations. Specifically, unlike current protocols that trigger evaluations after players show signs of confusion following hard hits and falls, wearable sensors will be logging all impacts, while analytics and artificial intelligence continuously estimate mounting damage. Their calculations will likely be combined with genetic information to produce predictive player profiles expressed as probabilities of growing cognitive and physiological damage.
Research suggests that most athletes in sports like football experience multiple concussions before they enter college. The data also suggest that it’s much worse for female than male athletes. A study by the NCAA and Ohio State University published in 2007 concluded that female athletes are more prone to concussions than boys by significant margins, 60% in soccer and 300% in basketball[i]. While inconclusive, some researchers believe that structural differences between the skulls of still-maturing females and males help explain the differences.
The Miami Dolphin's Tua Tagovailoa suffered multiple concussions that caused him to miss most of the 2023 season. It led to improved protective gear, training, and rules to prevent quarterbacks from sustaining head-brain injuries.
We are naturally inclined to focus on high-impact events and blows common to sports like football, rugby, and boxing that create sudden, acute injuries. They capture our attention, raise our heart rates, and highlight the toughness of competitors. Sensors, by contrast, are unaffected by human emotions and thus detect and capture less dramatic injuries and illnesses that most of us quickly forget. Wearables will reveal and make transparent how athletes are affected, respond, heal, and cope with mounting physiological and cognitive injuries caused by countless impacts and health events. Analytical systems will analyze, raise alarms, and challenge athletes, coaches, team owners, and sponsors with tough choices that make health risks explicit. Will violent sports like football, rugby, and boxing survive? No one knows at this point, so just in case, let’s enjoy our favorite sports while they’re still with us. Future generations may be left with only archival footage and silly video games.
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[i] Luke Gessel, Sarah Fields, Christy L Collins, Randall W Dick, R Dawn Comstock, Concussion among United States high school and collegiate athletes, Journal of Athletic training, Volume 42, pp. 495-503, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18174937/