Teams, leagues increasingly moving toward mobile ticketing

mobile ticketing
A fan uses his mobile phone to enter a stadium. Fans can purchase tickets which are sent as a barcode within a regular SMS message, when they arrive at the ground they hover their phone over one of the designated ticket readers to gain entry. Southend United are currently the only club in the UK who offer this service. (Photo by Daniel Hambury – PA Images via Getty Images)

Across the sports industry, teams are moving away from old-fashioned paper tickets and toward mobile ticketing. The rise in mobile ticketing can be seen in sports like football, baseball, and basketball. Even concert venues are going the mobile route.

The move to all-mobile ticketing is meant to be sustainable and eliminate fraud but has become problematic for those without smart phones.

Justin Burleigh, chief product officer for North America at Ticketmaster, told CBS Local Sports that mobile ticketing solves two problems. 

“Our industry has fundamentally always been plagued by issues that are at the core of ticketing, which are anonymity and fraud,” Burleigh said.

Teams also want to have more engagement with the fans, which paper tickets can’t necessarily provide. It’s not always the person who initially purchases the ticket who ends up going to the game. The anonymity of not knowing who is actually in the seats makes it difficult for fans and teams to connect.

MLB has recently partnered with Clear, a biometric identification system, to build a stronger connection. A quick swipe or tap of the finger will be all fans need to get into stadiums. Clear technology is already in use by the New York Yankees, Colorado Rockies, Seattle Mariners, New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Football Club, Oakland Athletics, San Jose Quakes and at events in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Biometric identification is another tool teams are using to show their commitment to better engagement with fans, and avoid the second issue in the two-part equation: fraud.

Sellers can make multiple copies of paper tickets and then sell them to multiple consumers. Mobile ticketing avoids this pitfall. 

A case study at Orlando City’s soccer stadium showed how a move to mobile ticketing can prevent fraud. The stadium went from 120 cases of fraud one season to none over the entirety of the next season.

While mobile ticketing arguably benefits teams and consumers, not all fans are happy with the move. There are bugs to work out.

At a Carolina Panthers preseason game this year, fans experienced long lines, issues with the team’s ticketing app and the frustration of not having a simple ticket to get into the game. Other critics have pointed out that some fans like to have the paper ticket as a momento from the experience. 

Panthers season ticket holder Ross Levin expressed his frustration with the new ticketing system to the Charlotte Observer.

“The days of us getting our paper tickets and enjoying that moment and opening them up and smelling them, those are over,” he said.

The Panthers weren’t the only team this season to have ticketing problems. Cleveland Browns fans experienced similar issues when their tickets wouldn’t load before a preseason game against the Washington Redskins.

One Browns fan told Cleveland’s ABC News 5 that she was so frustrated she broke into tears. 

According to Juniper Research, 1.9 billion fans are expected to use mobile ticketing by 2023, spending up to $23 billion. This year about 1.1 billion fans are expected to use mobile ticketing, spending about $14 billion, Juniper reported. 

Chris Pappas, 75, told the Charlotte Observer mobile ticketing is an added burden to people like him, who might not be as technologically savvy., Pappas owned a flip phone but had to trade it for an iPhone so that he can use the technology to buy tickets to watch his team play.

The NFL made the switch to go fully digital at the start of the 2018-2019 season. Teams across sports are starting to do the same. About a third of NBA teams have made the switch. The change isn’t taking place only in the U.S. Premiership Rugby tested mobile tickets for the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final. 

Like Papas, some fans are not familiar with smartphones, but as the sports industry evolves, technology promises to play a larger role everyday.

Millard Thomas is a senior sports journalism student at Arizona State University

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Quiet please! Golf betting going mobile

An unlocked iPhone showing home screen apps with someone's finger hovering over the app storeUntil a few years ago, the use of cellphones at golf tournaments was prohibited. Now, people on the course can use cellphones to make a profit — or to lose money — by combining advanced data-tracking software with newly legalized sports betting.

Black text that reads why this matters
As sports betting has expanded in the U.S., the practice of banning cell phones at PGA events may be a thing of the past to allow for mobile betting.

Using the ShotLink system, fans attending tournaments can receive real-time information from every hole. Every shot is now tracked by lasers and by unmanned cameras.  

Picture this: You’re with some friends on the 12th hole at a PGA Tour event. Before the next golfer tees off, you check your phone, looking at the latest odds for the upcoming hole. The options are endless for proposition bets, better known as prop bets: What will the result of the hole be? How far will the first drive go? Will the total number of strokes needed be an odd or even number? The possibilities are endless for these bets on happenings during play. 

Matt Troka, the senior vice president of product and partner management of CDW, the PGA Tour’s technology partner, spoke with Golf.com about how this technology can be used for betting. 

“When considering the role of data in sports betting and gambling, we understand that the uses of technology are always evolving,” he said. “It is universally important that consistent, accurate and real-time data be available.” 

In November 2018, IMG Arena announced that it is the official sports-betting data distributor of the PGA Tour. With the deal, IMG Arena holds the exclusive distribution rights to official statistical data that’s collected through ShotLink, the PGA Tour’s real-time data-tracking system.

After the deal was announced, Freddie Longe, senior vice president and managing director at IMG Arena, said in a media release, “The global sports betting market’s access to official data has revolutionized the in-play sports betting experience. We see golf as a sleeping giant. It is one of the few major sports that doesn’t yet offer consistent in-play betting markets. The PGA Tour is an undisputed leader in golf, and we feel this long-term partnership will allow us to work hand in hand to grow the game and protect the sport via the launch of a truly innovative digital experience that captures the next generation of sports betting and entertainment.”

Ezra Kucharz, the chief business officer for DraftKings, a daily fantasy sports content app, thinks the technology will bring a much more immersive experience for people who are already into golf.

“Before something like this, (people) were only paying attention to golf four or five weekends per year around the majors and maybe the Ryder Cup,” he told SportTechie. “This creates an enhanced experience so that other weekends of the year, they’re going to want to be immersed in the PGA Tour.”

In July 2019, DraftKings signed a multiyear deal to become the first official daily fantasy game of the PGA Tour. With the partnership, contestants will be able to receive real-time video highlights for PGA Tour players in their lineups. In addition, DraftKings and the Tournament will collaborate on a variety of real-time product enhancements courtesy of the PGA Tour’s ShotLink data feed. 

“Golf continues to grow in popularity among DFS players globally at DraftKings and is our fourth-largest sport in terms of engagement, out of 15 total offerings.” Kucharz said in a release. 

PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said, “This is a very important step for the PGA Tour in terms of engaging our fans, serving our players and enhancing our Integrity Program. Creating a bigger, more diverse, more engaged fan base around the world is key to any league’s success, and sports betting is part of how we plan to do that.”


Having the chance to win money instantly will be appealing to the casual fan in attendance. Andy Levinson, who is the PGA Tour’s senior vice president of tournament administration, said that around 80 percent of all sports bets made in New Jersey were made on mobile devices.

According to TheLines.com, roughly a quarter-billion dollars was spent on sports betting in New Jersey in July. 

Levinson told SportsTechie, “That’s something that we would really like to see (on the course). One day when people are attending PGA Tour events, then they can place wagers on their mobile devices.”

On top of giving fans a chance to leave the course with additional money in their (virtual) wallets, the PGA Tour is using this as a way to generate more interest and excitement among fans. With the popularity of the NFL, NBA and MLB, golf isn’t necessarily at the top of the leaderboard in regard to fan interaction. 

Steve Evans, who is the senior vice president of golf technologies at PGA Tour, views betting as a potential way to expand golf’s fan base.

“We’ve got a ton of data, but the magic is transforming it so that it’s easy for fans to consume at the right moment,” he told Golf.com. “Just like with fantasy football, the casual fan can have a gamified experience, even if they’re not betting. The engagement of people who participate at that level is so much higher. We look at it as a platform to really build our fan base.”

Blake Harris a senior sports journalism student at Arizona State University

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As humans evolved, some adaptations allowed for greater athletic success

Michael Phelps, 2016 Rio Summer Olympics
Michael Phelps of the United States has a nearly seven foot wingspan, which helped make him one of the greatest Olympians ever, winning 28 medals. (Photo by William Volcov/Brazil Photo Press/LatinContent via Getty Images)

If you’ve ever set a personal record or had a particularly stellar performance in sport, you have likely walked away smiling and proud. Reflecting on the hours you spent training and practicing, and the sacrifices you made en route to your victory, hard work was no doubt a foundational element. But what if there was something else at play as well? What if certain physiological or evolutionary adaptations had contributed to your accomplishment?

Why, sport and the body
Some physiological adaptations as humans have evolved have allowed for greater athletic success.

One significant area of evolutionary advantage we cannot overlook affects 50% of the population: the biological anatomy. Females are biologically designed to store more fat. And while it was originally for the purpose of child bearing and being able to support another human after birth, in the athletics world it is proving beneficial somewhere else: Ultrarunning.

In an ultra race (any race longer than a marathon), one of the limiting factors is fuel. Simply put, if the body runs out of energy to burn, it cannot keep going. And with many of these races being hundreds of miles, continuous movement is crucial.

The female anatomical physiology means that they have an advantage: naturally higher levels of fat allow for more fluid retention, and a longer-lasting fuel source for the body to burn. In general, women use calories differently over long-endurance activities and are able to derive more calories from fat rather than carbohydrates. It is a big reason behind why, with the ultra-racing scene on the rise, it may only be a matter of time before females can consistently outrun males across longer distances. 

However, it is not all down to physiology and the physical battle. In many cases, it is also the mental battle. David Willey, former Runner’s World editor and host of the Hive Life podcast, explains: “There’s a very real possibility that women are better suited to push themselves into new realms, especially in endurance sports like ultra-running.”  

Scientists do not know yet whether the basis behind it is higher levels of pain tolerance, better mental stamina, or the fuel factor, but something is working, because it is not a one-off incidence for females to outrun males in longer distance events.

In many ways, it is along the same lines as the concept coined by Dr. Michael Joyner in 2016: size sort. He proposed that athletes choose to focus on sports that are best for their body type. It was the same premise he used to explain why Michael Phelps was an exceptional swimmer, and to build his case around his prediction of man’s ability to run a sub-two-hour marathon

In the case of both athlete profiles — Phelps and a sub-2 elite runner — the desired outcome happens only with several natural physiological advantages: “A man with the ideal physiological traits could break the two-hour marathon barrier,” Joyner said. And, as we recently saw, that did indeed happen. So, too, we have seen success in swimming from similar grounds with Michael Phelps’ trait-specific physique.

Joyner acknowledged that Phelps has an ideal physique, with several advantages coming together to work in his favor:

  •     Lactic acid – Intensive physiological testing on Phelps throughout his career has determined that he produces less than half of the lactic acid of his fellow competitors. Lactic acid is a chemical byproduct of muscle contraction and exertion, which builds up in the body, and most people need a rest period in order to allow it to dissipate before being able to carry on with their activity. In Phelps’ case however, this rest period is required less frequently and is shorter than in most others.
  •     Wing span – With nearly seven feet in wingspan, Phelps’ disproportionate upper body-to-height ratio works dramatically in his favor.
  •     Torso to leg ratio – Not only is his wingspan ratio disproportionate, but so too is that of his torso to his legs. Phelps has a long torso and short legs, which decreases his resistance in the water. This ends with size 14 feet, which he can use like flippers propelling him to greatness.

While there is of course — as in any accomplished athlete — an unprecedented level of hard work and commitment behind his success, Phelps fits perfectly into the mold Joyner proposed of size sorting. Sometimes athletes are just born lucky!

And while these natural physiological advantages account for part of it, there are other physiological-related advantages that can be developed through consistent training.   

A study conducted by Kari Margrethe Lundgren et. al., out of Norway, looked at physiological adaptations in highly trained endurance athletes. In this study, researchers wanted to know if these athletes benefited from physiological adaptations specific to their sport, which would offer them an advantage over athletes who did not have these naturally occurring advantages.

 The researchers looked at athletes participating at an elite level in flatwater kayaking, cross country skiing and orienteering, comparing the following: 

  •     VO2max – The maximal oxygen uptake
  •     Blood volume – The combined value of the amount of red blood cells and plasma circulating throughout the body.
  •     Hemoglobin mass – The amount of iron containing oxygen-transport molecules
  •     Flow-mediated dilation – The change in arterial diameter of the blood vessels in response to increased blood and increased activity. Larger diameters indicate better flow ability, and therefore better performance ability.

For the test, they performed their activity under prescribed conditions so that the authors could obtain comparable measurements and data of the variables and understand how the athletes compared to each other in their respective sport. 

The results showed that skiers presented with a higher VO2max and arterial diameter in their arms, while kayakers benefitted from just the latter. The authors offered these as sport-specific adaptations to these athletes, ones that they developed because of the work in their sport, and as a means to assist in propelling them toward further sport success.

There is no denying that hard work, hours of practice and sport-specific talent are crucial for victory — personal or on a world stage. But in many cases, there may also be an underlying evolutionary or physiological advantage that can play an assistive role. Sport in the body will never be as simple as going and doing the sport. As much as understanding the sport is important, so too is it critical to evaluate the potential role of body adaptations.

Laura Peill, a Canadian living in Australia, is an avid long-distance runner, nutritionist and Pilates instructor, who spends her time teaching and writing about movement. She uses these modalities to help individuals shift their mindset around health, and overcome hurdles holding them back from their own success.

Editor’s note: For the 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.

Difficulty with speech, memory and behavior may be signs of CTE

Vontaze Burfict, Antonio Brown, NFl, Cincinnati Bengals
The Steelers’ Antonio Brown, shown here about to be knocked out by a hit to the head from Vontaze Burfict of the Cincinnati Bengals, has displayed unusual behavior and outbursts, similar to those found suffering from CTE. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

After being traded from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Oakland Raiders before the NFL season, receiver Antonio Brown was ready for a new start. 

Why, sport and the body
With football standing as one of the most beloved sports in the U.S., repeated hits to the head can lead to young players experiencing concussions, memory loss, and ultimately CTE.

That quickly changed when the Raiders announced that Brown would be suspended for conduct violations in early September. 

Brown then posted on social media asking to be released from the team after he was fined more than $215,000. The Raiders officially released Brown on Sept. 7, 2019

Brown then signed a one-year deal with the New England Patriots only to be released after allegations of sexual assault surfaced.  

Brown’s bizarre social-media posts, aggressive behavior and emotional outbursts, raise a question: Is Brown’s current behavior a result of his 2016 concussion?

On Jan. 9, 2016, Brown took a vicious hit from Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict, causing him to suffer from a grade 1 cranial concussion. Since then, Brown’s attitude and behavior have arguably become more unusual. 

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE, is a brain condition that results from repeated hits to the head. Mostly found in contact-sport athletes, CTE can cause memory loss, odd behavior, and trouble with speech and balance.

It could mean that behavioral and memory symptoms have the potential to foreshadow signs of developing CTE.

Since there is no way to determine whether Brown suffers from CTE without an autopsy, researchers can take data from the brains of other athletes to better understand the behavior that can result from head injuries.

Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who specifically researches CTE, told the Boston Globe that former New England Patriots player Aaron Hernandez was the youngest individual her research team has seen with his severe level of brain damage

In 2017, the 27-year-old hung himself in prison after receiving a life sentence for murder. Many football followers wondered why a young athlete with a successful football career would react in such an aggressive manner. 

“We can’t take the pathology and explain the behavior, but we can say collectively that individuals with CTE of this severity have difficulty with impulse control, decision making, aggression, often emotional volatility, and rage behavior,” McKee told the Globe. 

When it comes to CTE, there are four critical stages that can determine the severity of the disease.

The first stage of CTE is the least severe, resulting in headaches and difficulty concentrating. It’s not until the second stage where individuals begin to struggle with their emotional control. 

Stage three and four show more severe stage 2 damage, and the final stage of CTE can result in dementia, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. 

There currently is no way to positively determine whether an individual suffers from CTE until after death, but research like McKee’s indicates that behaviors such as  outward aggression, difficulty communicating, and memory loss might point to bigger problems. 

Samantha Sloman is a senior sports journalism student at Arizona State University

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Fall of Berlin Wall brought curtain down on GDR’s doping program

East Germany, Berlin Wall, fall of the wall,
West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall early 11 November 1989 as they watch East German border guards demolishing a section of the wall in order to open a new crossing point between East and West Berlin, near the Potsdamer Square. Two days before, the East German government declared that starting from midnight, East Germans would be free to leave the country, without permission, at any point along the border, including the crossing-points through the Wall in Berlin. (Photo by GERARD MALIE/AFP via Getty Images)

Officers from the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) furtively approach the St. Lawrence River and dump into the water suitcases bulging with syringes, serum, and other equipment used to dope East German Olympic athletes.

When the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, it marked the end of one of the largest and most successful state-sponsored doping programs. Today: A look at doping behind the Wall Tomorrow: Survivors of the GDR doping program Friday: How regulators are trying to end state-sanctioned doping

 

 

It is the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) is en route to collecting 40 gold medals and 90 medals in total. That drug-assisted feat puts the highly controlled communist state of just 17 million citizens second overall in the Summer Games medal count behind the Soviet Union, a high-water mark it repeated in Moscow (1980) and Seoul (1988). 

The title of Jerry Kirshenbaum’s 1976 Sports Illustrated story encapsulates the prevailing perception of sports in East Germany: “Assembly Line for Champions.”

For true believers in the ultimate triumph of Marxism-Leninism, it would be hard to imagine then that both the GDR and its powerful athletic machine would come to an abrupt and unceremonious end just 13 years later.

Nov. 9, 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That seminal 1989 event sparked East Germany’s reunification with West Germany, as well as the demise of communism in the Soviet Union and its other Eastern Bloc satellite states. The Berlin Wall was built by the East German government in August 1961 to seal off East Berlin from the part of the city occupied by the three main Western powers after World War II to prevent mass illegal immigration to the West. 

Confessions from coaches and doctors, whistleblower revelations and the opening of the Stasi archives sealed East Germany’s infamy for creating the most comprehensive state-sponsored doping system in the history of international athletics. 

What is evident today is that modern Germany, despite having done considerable penance for the horrors of the Nazi regime and World War II, has struggled with how best to confront the tainted achievements and body-destroying effects of elite GDR sports.

State Plan 14.25, secretly launched in 1974, mandated the systemic use of performance-enhancing drugs for East German Olympic aspirants, including some pre-pubescent children. It was authorized by GDR sports minister Manfred Ewald, a former Hitler Youth leader, and implemented by Dr. Manfred Hoeppner, the state director of sports medicine, and the nation’s top scientists. The East Germans had already been doping since the 1960s.

Berlin Wall, East Germany
A man chisels away at a graffiti covered section of the Berlin Wall which says “Walls Are Not Everlasting!”after the fall of communism in Germany. (Photo by Owen Franken/Corbis via Getty Images)

The objectives were multi-dimensional. East Germany treated sports as a vehicle to show the superiority of socialism over capitalism, divert attention from its underperforming economy, and provide an independent source of national pride without jeopardizing its security in the Warsaw Pact military alliance. Victory — even if achieved illegally and without consideration for individual human rights — was all that counted.

Anabolic steroids — euphemistically dubbed “supplementary means” — drove the doping program. Jenapharm, an East German pharmaceutical company that still exists today, developed Oral-Turinabol. Approximately 2 million doses of synthetic testosterone were given annually to 2,000 GDR athletes, frequently without their knowledge, as the little blue pills were passed off as “vitamins.” More than 10,000 athletes were doped.

GDR doctors strove to ensure drug cheating went undetected, using methods that ranged from administering epitestosterone to keep athletes’ hormone levels within IOC-sanctioned limits to swapping dirty urine for clean urine. In fact, only in 1977 did 20-year-old shot putter Ilona Slupianek became the first East German athlete ever caught doping during competition. 

The 5-foot-10, 205-pound product of SC Dynamo Berlin tested positive for steroids at the European Cup in Helsinki and was suspended for a year. In 1980, however, Slupianek returned to win gold at the Moscow Olympics, which were boycotted by the U.S. and other Western countries after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. She also set two world records that year.

Female East German athletes were disproportionately subjected to doping. It was less of an effort to spotlight women’s sports under socialism than a cold-blooded calculation to reap medals that were tougher for East German men to win against elite Western competitors. 

Title IX legislation, which stipulated gender-equal access to sports at American colleges and universities, was not signed into law until 1972. Thus, at this time, U.S. women athletes, as a group, were not undergoing as rigorous training as their East German counterparts. Prevailing standards of femininity and beauty also discouraged Western women from getting overly big and strong.

Ewald and Hoeppner ruthlessly exploited the opportunity they had identified. According to Mark Johnson’s Spitting in the Soup: Inside the Dirty Game of Doping in Sports, “GDR researchers knew that one-third of their female athletes were suffering gynecological damage from heavy anabolic steroid use.”

The steroid-fueled 1976 East German Olympic women’s swimming team won 11 of 13 possible gold medals. The American team, starring Shirley Babashoff, settled for one upset gold in the 4 x 100 relay. When the 18-year-old Babashoff called out her GDR rivals for their “deep voices and mustaches” and refused to shake hands with them, the media dubbed her “Surly Shirley.”

The post-Berlin Wall fallout from the state-sponsored doping program, which confirmed the accusations of Babashoff and suspicions of others, is incredibly mixed and problematic. For one thing, the IOC has consistently declined to confiscate or reallocate medals won by East German athletes who were later shown to be doping if they did not test positive at the Olympics in question. 

In 1976, 17-year-old East German Kornelia Ender became the first female swimmer ever to win four gold medals at one Olympics. According to the Plauen native, she did not know she was being doped at the time, and she retired in 1977 when she found out that was the case. Ender has retained her medals. On the other hand, Ender’s teammate Carola Nitschke volunteered to return her medals and asked for her name to be removed from the record books.

World records set by Eastern Bloc women have proven hard to topple, despite subsequent advances in training, athletic gear, nutritional knowledge, and other factors. One example is Marita Koch’s seemingly impregnable 400-meter record of 47.60 seconds at the 1985 International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) World Cup in Canberra, Australia. Koch never admitted doping, never failed a drug test, and kept her record. She has had a low-key retirement, running a sporting goods store in Rostock.

However, researchers Brigitte Berendonk and Werner Franke found information in the Stasi archives about specific doses of PEDs reportedly given to Koch and other track and field athletes. The Independent’s Simon Turnbull noted: “They also unearthed a letter from Koch to Jenapharm complaining that Barbel Wockel, who won the European 200m title ahead of her in Athens in 1982, was being given stronger doses of the steroids because her uncle was president of the pharmaceutical company that fed the East German athletics regime.”

Today’s female sprinters have complained that not only are many world records out of reach, but that their unattainability reduces excitement around women’s athletics. Of course, doping existed and continues to exist in men’s athletics as well, but Victor Conte, whose San Francisco-based BALCO lab featured in the drug scandal implicating Barry Bonds and other pro athletes, has stated that steroids can help a female 100-meter sprinter shave 0.4 seconds off her time, versus just 0.2 for a male sprinter.

Meanwhile, GDR swimmer Kristin Otto has stayed in the spotlight after retirement, despite controversy about her achievements. In 1988, she became the first woman to win six gold medals at one Olympics. Otto has said she never knowingly took PEDs, although Franke has contradicted that assertion based on his research.

In 1997, there was an outcry over Otto’s nomination — in light of her murky past — to become the president of the German Olympic Association, and she withdrew from consideration. In 2013, Swimming World Magazine revoked the World Swimmer of the Year awards originally given to Otto and other East German stars. Still, the 53-year-old Leipzig native remains a swimming commentator on the German TV network ZDF.

Berlin Wall, East Germany, West Germany
West Germans celebrate atop the Berlin Wall after the communist leaders of East Germany allowed East Berliners free access across the border. (Photo By Stephen Jaffe/Getty Images)

When punishment finally came for the state-sponsored doping masterminds, it was lenient. In 2000, Ewald and Hoeppner faced 142 counts apiece of being an accessory to causing bodily harm in a Berlin court. Ewald got a 22-month suspended prison sentence and died two years later at age 76. Hoppner also got probation.

Today, Western athletes like Babashoff are still waiting for upgraded medals, apologies, or other forms of restitution that may never come. The IOC, IAAF, and other governing bodies remain reluctant to re-open a can of worms from the past. 

The victimized East German athletes have received some financial compensation. In 2006, 167 of them got about $12,000 apiece from the German government. A second fund, expected to assist more survivors, was set up in 2016, with an application deadline of Dec. 31, 2019.

There is a widespread reticence about re-examining the East German experience, which is viewed as a paranoid and shabby chapter in German history. Resentment between former West Germans and East Germans continues over the latter group’s struggles to integrate into a capitalist economy.

Selective memories are rampant. To frame the issue in cinematic terms, it is easier to watch an Ostalgie comedy, like Goodbye, Lenin!, than a harsh reminder, like The Lives of Others, that shows how one in seven East Germans spied on their neighbors. Critical reappraisal is often hardest for the former GDR citizens and sportspeople themselves.

As Gary Bruce wrote in The Firm: The Inside Story of the Stasi: “There is a self-defense mechanism at play against what appears to East Germans to be a suggestion that because the country in which they lived was the country of the Stasi and the Wall, their triumphs, achievements, personal relationships, even their lives were all for naught.”

However, this is all such recent history that the bodies of the East German doping survivors still provide living testimony to what happened. Some of those athletes may still be among us 30 or 40 years from now. Their fates should not be allowed to disappear into obscurity like those syringes in the St. Lawrence River.

Lucas Aykroyd writes for the New York Times, espnW, and the Women’s Sports Foundation. Based in Vancouver, he has covered women’s hockey at five Winter Olympics and four IIHF Women’s World Championships.

Ability to play through pain is more than mind over matter for athletes

Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics
Elena Delle Donne hugs teammate Kristi Toliver  during the closing seconds of their win over the Connecticut Suns during Game Five of the 2019 WNBA Finals. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Hampered by a herniated disk, Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics could barely run. Yet time after time, during the decisive Game 5 of the 2019 WNBA Finals, she found herself with the ball and somehow made clutch shots.

Why, sport and the body
Researchers have found that women were more willing to play through injuries than men. In addition, the willingness to play through pain is seen as heroic or even necessary for success.

Despite the pain, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player finished with 21 points, a team-high nine rebounds and didn’t commit a turnover in the Mystics’ 89-78 victory over the Connecticut Sun to capture the WNBA championship.

Science has yet to fully explain how a player finds a way to play through pain. 

A 2014 study by an Australian university found that aerobic training can increase the pain tolerance in healthy individuals. Another study by the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education and Recreation showed that birth order may play a role, with first-born people more likely to avoid such contact sports such as football, lacrosse and judo than kids farther down in the family pecking order. And the North American Journal of Psychology recently discovered that previous experience with pain has “a desensitizing effect on pain threshold and tolerance.”

Delle Donne’s willingness to play through pain is supported by researchers at the University of Calgary, who found that women were more willing to play through injuries than men, even when other socio-demographic and psychological factors are included.

In addition, the willingness to play through pain is seen as heroic or even necessary for success. Multiple studies have shown that coaches respect athletes who play through pain more than others. This element of sport culture, dubbed “sport ethic” in past studies, “emphasizes sacrifice for ‘The Game,’ ” has been exacerbated in a heightened media environment that glorifies playing through pain.

A Canadian study showed that, in sub-elite athletes working to meet major goals like making a championship or Olympic team, the goals of athletes outweigh the potential consequences of playing through pain, even though pain often points to injury. 

Athletes in this study discussed the difficulty of distinguishing between soreness and pain, so it’s possible their lack of concern about potential injury means that they aren’t always sure how much pain is problematic. In general, “the importance they attributed to reaching their goals appeared to have a bigger impact on their decision-making.”

The study showed that, because these athletes can’t always distinguish between soreness and pain and because athletes at the sub-elite level are at decisive points in their careers that could determine their future in sport, “they are in some ways quite vulnerable to making poor decisions in regards to potential long-term consequences.”

 Thus, researchers stressed the importance of trainers and coaches educating athletes as to the potential consequences of playing through pain.

The largely internal decision-making process of athletes about when to play through pain, combined with their tendency to try to mask painful facial expressions from coaches and trainers, raised the question of who should make the decision to play-through-pain, and how. Researchers advised that coaches and trainers pay attention to “functional limitations such as altered movement and decreased performance, and mood changes to assess the athlete’s condition” rather than relying on athletes to admit to pain or show facial strain. Most of all, the decision making process should be based on strong relationships between athletes and their trainers and coaches.

With such relationships, athletes, coaches and trainers can determine when it’s appropriate to play through pain, as Delle Donne did during the WNBA Finals. As the sub-elite athlete study showed — and as many of sporting history’s most heralded moments demonstrate — athletes are more likely to play through pain when the stakes are highest. 

Delle Donne turned to meditation to help manage her pain during the WNBA Finals. And in finding a way to cope with the pain and remain on the court in a big moment, she placed herself among elite company, including:

Curt Schilling.  Before Game Six of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees, the Red Sox right-hander had a torn tendon in his right ankle sutured to the skin. The procedure was first done on a cadaver to see if it could work. With blood famously seeping through his sock, Schilling dominated through seven innings. In winning the game at Yankee Stadium, Schilling put Boston in position to rally from 3-0 deficit in the series and capture the 2004 pennant.

Michael Jordan. During timeouts in Game Five of the 1997 NBA Finals, the Chicago Bulls star could barely stand. But after the Bulls spotted the Utah Jazz a 16-point lead in the first quarter, the ailing Jordan led a comeback, scoring 38 points in Chicago’s 90-88 victory. Officially, Jordan was said to have the flu, but years later, trainer Tim Grover told ESPN that it was likely food poisoning from a hotel pizza.

Kerri Strug, Bela Karolyi, 1996 Olympics
Kerri Strug of the United States is carried by coach Bela Karolyi to the podium after winning a injuring herself making the winning vault for the U.S. gymnastics team at the 1996 Summer Olympics. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

Kerri Strug. Holding a slim lead over the favored Russians at the 1996 Summer Olympics, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team needed one more quality vault to secure the gold medal. But when one American competitor fell and then Strug injured her ankle on the first of her two attempts, it didn’t look good for the U.S. women. 

But with U.S. coach Bela Karolyi yelling, “You can do it, Kerri!” and fans standing in anticipation, Strug somehow landed her vault on one leg. She saluted the judges before crumbling over in pain. Her score of 9.712 was enough to give the Americans the team gold.

Jack Youngblood. The defensive end proved to be such a force for the Los Angeles Rams that the team traded star Deacon Jones to make room for him in the lineup. Youngblood would go on to play a Rams’ record 201 consecutive games and miss only one contest in 14 seasons. There was no keeping the five-time All-Pro out of the lineup, which was underscored during the 1979-80 NFL playoffs when he broke his left fibula, the large bone of the upper leg. Fitted with a plastic brace, Youngblood somehow played every defensive down in both the NFC title game against Tampa Bay and in Super Bowl XIV against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Rams lost to the Steelers in the Super Bowl, but just for good measure, he also played in the Pro Bowl eight days later.

Bobby Baun. Hockey players are renowned for their toughness and ability to play through pain. Broken noses, lost teeth, or stitches usually aren’t enough to keep them off the ice for long. But even the most resilient in the game would have to go to some length to surpass Toronto’s Baun. In Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 1964, Baun blocked a slap shot with his ankle and was carted off on a stretcher. When the contest against the Detroit Red Wings went into overtime, Baun refused to have the ankle X-rayed and instead insisted that it be frozen. He followed his teammates back onto the ice for the extra session and, with the Maple Leafs down three games to two in the series and facing elimination,  Baun scored the game-winning goal and the inspired Leafs went on to win the championship with a victory in Game 7.

Tiger Woods. Golf has been called a long walk spoiled, and it is unlikely any golf tournament has been any more painful than the one Tiger Woods played at the 2008 U.S. Open. After finishing second at the Masters, Woods underwent knee surgery, his third such procedure. Doctors recommended that he skip the upcoming Open, but Woods decided to play. It didn’t look good early on as he double-bogeyed the first hole in the final round. Woods hung on, shooting a final-round 73 that got him into an 18-hole Monday playoff with Rocco Mediate. Activity on the New York Stock Exchange fell that day as the pair teed off at noon Eastern Time.

To make matters worse for Woods, the playoff extended to a 19th hole with Woods and Mediate still tied. In obvious pain, Wood somehow reached the green in two shots and safely two-putted for par. When Mediate missed a 15-foot putt, Woods limped away with the championship.

“All I can say is the atmosphere kept me going,” Woods said. “I could never quit in front of these people – it was never going to happen.”

There are other stories of playing through pain. New York Knicks center Willis Reed famously played Game 7 of the NBA Finals with a torn quadricep, even winning the opening tip. Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers, with a torn hamstring muscle, slugged a pinch-hit home run in the World Series and limped around the bases, pumping his fist. Much like Strug, Japan’s Shun Fujimoto competed with a dislocated kneecap to help his country win the team gold in gymnastics in the 1976 Olympics. And San Francisco 49ers safety Ronnie Lott had his crushed pinky finger amputated after the 1985 season rather than undergo surgery that would have caused him to miss the start of the 1986 season.

All of them serve as reminders that, while science may never totally determine what makes athletes persevere under the worst of physical conditions, it’s an amazing display when they find a way.

Tim Wendel is the author of several sports books, including “Going for the Gold” and “Summer of ’68.”

Calah Schlabach, a master of mass communications student at Arizona State University, contributed to this story

Editor’s note: For the 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.

Hamstring injuries don’t have to be the end to a footballer’s career

Fernando Torres, hamstring
Spain’s Fernando Torres goes off with a hamstring injury during the game against France in 2008. (Photo by Barrington Coombs/PA Images via Getty Images)

Sports, more precisely football, comes with the risk of serious injuries, one of which is most dreaded by footballers: the hamstring injury.

The stress and strain of football makes hamstring injuries a common malady. How can they be protected?

Due to the nature of the game, which requires kicking, running and controlling the movement of the ball with primarily one’s legs and feet, it is common in football to see players hit the turf in agony having stretched beyond limit one of those three hip muscles — the biceps femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus.

Former Spanish international Fernando Torres is certainly one person who would likely cringe at the mere mention of the injury. In 2008, Torres finished third behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the Ballon d’Or award after scoring 38 goals for Liverpool and leading Spain to an international title. But luck was not with him.

Not once, not twice but thrice did Torres go down clutching his hamstring in the course of the 2008-2009 campaign and the impact of the recurring damage soon took its toll and ultimately left a mark on his career.

 Though El Nino may have gone on to lift every major trophy in club football, as well as two European Championships and even a World Cup title, on an individual level, he was never the same fleet-footed, silky player who lit up the English topflight, scoring 24 goals in 33 league appearances for Liverpool after first arriving in Anfield for a then-club record contract.

In his book, ‘El Nino, My Story, the 35-year-old summed up his predicament: “It was a real hammer blow. The first time it happens you think it is normal and you keep going. The second time, you stop, you take more care and you start to ask yourself why it happened. The third time, you stop properly, you start to investigate the underlying causes and work as hard as you can to make sure it never happens again. That was even more important in my case, because it was my hamstring that was causing me problems — the muscle I live by, the one that gives you acceleration and speed.”

What is a hamstring injury and why is it common in football?

A hamstring injury can occur when one or more of the three muscles located at the back of the thigh and runs directly to the knee region is stretched beyond limits to the point of snapping or causing a tear to the delicate tendons.

The majority of such injuries occur during sprinting or when speedy footballers try to outwit their markers in a dash, which creates a greater proportion of movement on the hamstring muscles. There are, however, varying degrees of severity to this mishap, and a grade one tear is understandably less grim than a grade two or grade three strain.

Surgical researchers have shown that in the severest of cases, the tissue tears completely away from the hip bone. It may even pull a piece of bone away with it.

American physician Robert Gendler, who suffered from the pain of a hamstring injury described his predicament with these words: The pain was not unbearable, but it was constant. Even the smallest movement made it worse, and I was not able to properly cycle, hike or jog. It even hurt to sit. I eventually began to feel irritation also in my sciatic nerve.

Is a hamstring injury a career-ending event?

The answer to this is a simple “No.” Rupturing one’s hamstrings might not necessarily be a death knell.

With proper medical attention, the stricken player who picked up a grade one hamstring strain could take up to three weeks or less to return to action, whereas grade two and grade three tears can take much more than three weeks and can run into months.

But these recuperation periods can differ depending on the individuals in question and how best one’s body responds to treatment.

What are the treatment procedures that can aid faster recovery?

One of the most popular ways of treating and rehabilitating a hamstring injury is the RICE” method — Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation.

As surgeries are rarely needed, except in issues of complete avulsion or tear, most physiotherapists also employ some type of exercise, preferably in a swimming pool or on a stationary bike set to a low resistance.

These exercises help take one’s hamstrings through a range of motions without having to hold up one’s weight. Then when one can eventually walk with no support and without a limp, a walking program is introduced. As the rehabilitation progresses, the player can work up to jogging.

Stretching exercises will also be a key feature of the routine rehab activities.

Emmanuel Chinaza is an international sports media guru who has featured on The Scuffed Soccer Podcast leading up to the 2019 U-20 World Cup

Editor’s note: For the 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.

Blind high school cross-country runner finding a path to success

Liam Thurlby, blind, cross countryu
Liam Thurlby, a blind cross country runner, is lead by a former runner during a recent race. (Photo courtesy Greg Hall via Twitter)

Competing on a cross-country team in high school is difficult.  Running for hours on end, completing homework and participating in activities outside of school is demanding enough for most athletes. 

Why, sport and the body
The desire to compete is stronger than blindness, allowing cross country runner Liam Thurlby to overcome one more obstacle in life.

For Liam Thurlby, a 17-year-old who attends Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kansas, there is an added degree of difficulty.

Thurlby is legally blind. 

According to the Kansas City Star, just four years ago, Thurlby was living in an orphanage in Linyi, China. Close to “aging out” for the prospect of international adoption — China does not allow children 14 and older to be adopted internationally — Thurlby faced the additional hurdle of being born with microphthalmia, a developmental disorder of the eyes. 

Miraculously, he found his way to the U.S., thanks to his best friend, Josh Clarkson. When they were both at the orphanage in China, they promised each other that they would try and remain together if adopted. 

Clarkson was adopted, and moved across the world to America. He didn’t forget about the pact the two had made, though. After getting to his new home, he tried everything to try and get his best friend to the states. 

Clarkson campaigned for other families to adopt Liam. Kristin Thurlby, a family friend of the Clarkson’s, told the Kansas City Star that “The more Josh described his friend, the more I began to think about him and taking that plunge. I remember saying to my husband, ‘I think Josh is describing our son!’ ”

For the Thurlbys, adopting a child was nothing new. They had adopted a daughter, Elliese, from China 10 years earlier. However, they were on the fence about adopting another child. A decade earlier while filling out forms for Elliese’s adoption, one of the questions on the forms said ‘Would you accept a special needs child?’ At the time, they checked ‘no.’ 

After talking with Elliese about the adoption, she said that they “better go fast” in order to adopt him before he aged out. “If you had told me four years ago that we would be adopting a grown kid from China who is legally blind, well, I don’t know what I would have done,” Kristin Thurlby said. “But I sure would not have believed it.”

It took some time for Liam to get comfortable in the states. He didn’t speak English, and he had to make adjustments to everyday living. Though it was a struggle at first, he adapted.

“He is fiercely independent,” Kristin Thurlby said. “He is supposed to use a white cane, but he refuses to have anything to do with it. He has an incredible memory and he quickly memorizes layouts and knows where he needs to go.”

He also is a good student, getting A’s in all of his classes except one, English. He’s at 89 percent in that class. According to Liam, the curriculum isn’t as difficult for him in the states as it was in China, and that’s despite having to learn English along the way. 

Hoping to get his son in shape and have him stay active, Trace Thurlby began taking Liam on runs. To nobody’s surprise, Liam didn’t initially enjoy running. But that wasn’t an excuse to stop. His sister Carolyn convinced him to join the high school cross country team with her.

“She is a lot more dedicated than I am,” Liam said. 

Dedicated is an understatement. Every morning she was waiting for him outside his door, ready for their runs. Liam fell out of shape while spending part of the summer at a camp at the Kansas State School for the Blind. When he got home, he realized that changes needed to be made, and he began doing morning runs with his sister again.

 He joined Carolyn’s daily abdominals workout, too, and then began training after school with his sister and her friend Riley Beach, who won the Kansas Class 6A cross country championship as a freshman. The girls would run alongside Liam, one on each side, to guide him as he ran. 

“Liam is competitive and always wants to beat me,” Carolyn said. “He can run just as fast as any sighted person. He understands there are no excuses.”

Ian Frazier, the cross country coach, agreed.

“(He) is awesome. He has a huge heart and a hard-working spirit about him that is rare,” Frazier said. “Liam has all the excuses to not do the work, but he refuses to use any of them.”

Frazier had praise for Carolyn as well.

“His sister Carolyn, who nobody is paying attention to yet but (who) is about to have a breakout season, pushes him because she is so focused and driven,” Frazier said. “Success breeds success in that family. Their family is a big part of why Liam’s sight limitation is a non-issue. They are so supportive.”

Frazier’s passion and dedication isn’t unappreciated. Kristen Thurlby said that the coach is one of the most important people in Liam and Carolyn’s lives right now, adding that he is one of the most encouraging individuals she has ever met. 

Five years ago, Liam was an orphan in China with a future as clouded as his vision. Now with a loving family, a home and a passion for running, the road ahead could not be clearer.

Blake Harris a senior sports journalism student at Arizona State University

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Opinion: How do we celebrate Kipchoge but turn blind eye to Semenya, para athletes?

Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, shown here winning the 2018 Berlin Marathon in world record time, ran a sub-2 hour marathon under special conditions earlier in October.  (Photo by Maja Hitij/Bongarts/Getty Images)

A thought experiment: Two athletes perform at the top of their games. They both break records. They both make us reconsider preconceived limits. They both compete with grace, strength, commitment and with never-before-seen talent.

Risa Isard
Guest columnist Risa Isard

One athlete performs in manufactured conditions, with every detail accounted for to optimize performance. The other performs in competition with no extra outside support.

The athlete who is aided by technology receives great acclaim for their success. The athlete who relies on just their own biology is banned from further competition. What gives?

It’s not a thought experiment.

The greatest male distance runner of all time, Eliud Kipchoge, did the unthinkable when he ran a sub-two hour marathon on October 12. It’s so unthinkable that in 2017 when Kipchoge and two other runners first attempted the feat, they narrowly failed. It’s understandable, considering that most mortals could barely run 100 meters at the pace Kipchoge endeavored to hold for 42,000 meters.

To be successful this time required what Kipchoge himself has likened to the team that put the first person (man) on the moon. In runner speak: the organizing committee confirmed the effort just 72 hours in advance after tracking weather patterns; the course was evened ahead of time; dozens of world-class athletes acted as pacers who rotated in a perfected pattern to allow Kipchoge to draft; an electric car projected his required pace at all times; a painted line set forth the most direct path around the park; a cyclist matching Kipchoge’s speed transferred him fluids; and his specialized Nike shoes featured carbon-fiber plates to maximize his energy output.

The manipulation of every aspect means the effort is not an official world record, which is of little consequence given that Kipchoge already holds that mark.

Kipchoge’s success comes more than three months after Caster Semenya ran what may have been her final race. Semenya came blazing onto the international running circuit in 2009 when she captured gold in the 800 meters at the World Championships. Then just 18 years old, her profound success and speculated difference in gender sparked protest from her fellow athletes and made international headlines.

A media circus, humiliating medical tests, leaked private information, scrutiny, and legal action followed Semenya for the subsequent decade. The topic of conversation: Semenya has naturally-occurring testosterone levels that are higher than the average woman. She is also queer, from the global south, and does not adhere to traditional ideals of Westernized femininity. Internet thought pieces and official documents alike are riddled with coded language.

The facts: She is fast, strong and easily outpaces her competitors.

Earlier this year the highest international sports court ruled that track and field’s international governing body can exclude from competition Semenya and other women with naturally-occurring testosterone levels. The rules are “discriminatory but necessary,” according to the court. It’s the sport equivalent of the now infamous “separate but equal” U.S. Supreme Court ruling later struck down. The decision effectively ended Semenya’s running career. Indeed, she did not compete in the most recent World Championships in Doha in October. Instead she is playing soccer.

Earlier this year the highest international sports court ruled that track and field’s international governing body can exclude from competition Semenya and other women with naturally-occurring testosterone levels. … It’s the sport equivalent of the now infamous “separate but equal” U.S. Supreme Court ruling later struck down.

How are we to reconcile the well-earned international acclaim that Kipchoge has received for his man-made feat with the dehumanizing treatment and blacklisting Semenya was subjected to for racing on her own merits?

Exceptional women are not the only ones who find themselves on the outside of the mainstream sports narrative.

Athletes of all genders who compete in adaptive sports also know this experience all too well. Technological advances — not unlike the shoes Kipchoge wore —are often heralded when used by athletes without disabilities to achieve great feats. But sport feats of para-athletes who use modified equipment to compete are often seen as illegitimate. This, even though “Prosthetics are to the Paralympian what the running shoe is to the Olympian,” as University of Colorado researcher Roger Pielke, Jr. has explained.

“Applying technology to breaking the threshold of a 2-hour marathon would be quite a notable achievement. So, too, would be applying technology to allow amputees to compete fairly in the Olympic games. But only one of these applications represents a more humane use of technology,” wrote Pielke on Kipchoge’s first attempt. 

Pielke was in part referring to Oscar Pistorius’s case that came before the same court that heard Semenya’s disputes. At the time, the court ruled that the Blade Runner, as Pistorius had become known, could compete alongside athletes without disabilities at the Olympics. Pistorius became the first double-leg amputee to compete in the Olympic Games when he ran at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. 

More recent international sport politics have changed the rules on which Pistorius’s case rested. Subsequently, Markus Rehm, the bladed long jumper poised to take Pistorius’s place in sport, was ineligible to compete at the 2016 Games in Rio. 

Pistorius, Rehm, and their fellow para athletes are used to being relegated to the less lucrative, less watched, and less celebrated Games. Despite the Paralympics’ origins as “parallel” to the Olympics, the most coverage the Paralympics has ever received (250 hours) in the US amounted to just 10% of the content aired for the Olympics (2,400 hours). 

“Applying technology to breaking the threshold of a 2-hour marathon would be quite a notable achievement. So, too, would be applying technology to allow amputees to compete fairly in the Olympic games. But only one of these applications represents a more humane use of technology.” – University of Colorado researcher Roger Pielke Jr.

How are we to reconcile such wide celebration of Kipchoge’s tech-aided accomplishment with the second-class sportsmanship we assign to para-athletes who rely on technological aids or other advanced equipment to make sport accessible?

The answer is in marketing.

“No human is limited” was the official hashtag of the INEOS 1:59 Challenge marathon. Kipchoge famously declared the catchphrase after crossing the finish line. He shared it in media interviews leading up to the moment and has tweeted it more than two dozen times since announcing the effort in May. Ineos, the brand sponsoring the effort, has tweeted it more than 100 times since then.

It’s a good rallying cry. If only it were true.

The moniker is ability and gender neutral. Opting for “human” over “man” and avoiding all ambulatory language – unlike in the moon landing’s “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — Ineos wants all athletes to see themselves in Kipchoge.

Many can’t.

Not when women’s sport is framed as a cost, rather than the investment of which men’s sport is worthy, as sports economist David Berri has researched. Nor when the same is true of para-sports as compared to sport for people without disabilities.

Not with a narrative that merely celebrates women’s participation in sport, rather than revering women for their athletic achievements, as women’s running company CEO Sally Bergesen has written. And when the same is true of para-athletes as compared to athletes without disabilities.

Not with women’s and adaptive sport an after-thought, while men in sport and those without disabilities continue to have opportunities handed to them on a silver platter. Or perfected racing conditions.

Not with Paralympians left out of the stadium’s bright lights.

Not with Semenya on the sidelines, convicted for running in her full humanity.

It’s not Kipchoge’s fault. He ran inspired. His historic accomplishment will no doubt encourage people to dream on and off the track. His message will motivate people to ask, what else is possible?

That’s what I want to find out. 

Risa Isard is a Washington, DC-based expert in sports policy, with a focus on the intersection of sports, gender, sexuality, and social issues. She holds a specialized degree in “Social Change at the Intersection of Culture, Gender, and Sports” from Duke University. She’s a Phoenix native and has been published on espnW and Quartz. Follow her on Twitter at @RisaLovesSports.

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Survey shows student-athletes feel taken advantage of by NCAA

Zion Williamson, NCAA, NCAA Tournament
Zion Williamson of the Duke Blue Devils attempts to block a shot during the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. A recent survey found that nearly 90% of student athletes felt the NCAA was taking advantage of them. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

A recent College Pulse poll found that 89 percent of varsity NCAA athletes feel taken advantage of by the NCAA.   

What are the underlying reasons scholarship NCAA student-athletes feel that they are being taken advantage of?

This is not a new sentiment. For years, there have been calls for the NCAA to compensate student-athletes.  College Pulse also found that 84 percent of students in general feel that student-athletes are being taken advantage of by the NCAA with 43 percent of these students somewhat agreeing that the NCAA has been exploiting these athletes. An additional 41 percent strongly agree. 

Why do students and student-athletes feel that way?

Revenue Generating vs. Non-Revenue Generating Athletics

Victoria Jackson is a former distance runner at the University of North Carolina and Arizona State University.  When the clinical assistant professor of history at Arizona State is asked how her collegiate career was different from that of a revenue-sport athlete, she explained how lucky she was in terms of the specific sport she was involved in.

“So I never thought of it at the time, but now that I study this stuff, I was really lucky that I was a distance runner, because there’s a limit to how much you can run every week,” Jackson said. “If you run more than that, then you’re going to get injured.  So, I never spent more than 20 hours a week on sports.” 

As a non-revenue sport athlete, Jackson said she didn’t feel the same pressure other athletes did.  She enjoyed her athletic experience, and it gave her the opportunity to have the college experience she was seeking.

For an athlete in a high-profile sport like football, the collegiate experience can be very different. Chris Kluwe is a former punter for UCLA, who went on to play in the NFL for eight seasons. He said he struggled to find time for things other than football.

“If we’re demanding eight, 10 hours a day from our athletes to do stuff, it doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for school work,” Kluwe said. “So you really don’t get that academic experience.”

Kluwe said he had to change his major to political science, and then later history because getting a computer science degree was just too much while also dealing with the commitment and fatigue from football.

“I went to UCLA, which is obviously a DI school, and has a lot of history and a lot of background,” Kluwe said. “And you would see the other sports like gymnastics, softball, and women’s volleyball; those are all sports that the school expected those athletes to perform at a championship level, but they weren’t getting nearly the amount of facilities, and money, and attention as the football team and the men’s basketball team.  So absolutely I can see that students are feeling that they are being taken advantage of.”   

Academic injustice

Jackson pointed out that universities spend money on education for their athletes, but some of their specific actions may not be in the best interest of the athletes.

For instance, one way athletic departments spend money on education is on tutors or athletic study halls, but Jackson feels this might not be the best use of that money.  

“It’s done from a good place, but it’s ultimately hurting athletes because they lose a sense of independence,” Jackson said. “They’re not kind of given the opportunity to make this transition from adolescence to young adulthood, where you learn how to make a doctor’s appointment, where you learn how to book a flight, where as in athletics, so many of those things are done for the athlete.  And then you feel guilty for not knowing.”

“My sport sucked money and resources from the institution, but I got the benefit from it.  That system works for athletes like me,” Jackson added.

“We have to get away from the idea of the student-athlete, because as modern sports have progressed, the athlete part of it is the full-time job. It’s unreasonable to expect 18 to 21 year olds to be both students and athletes at the same time.  There’s just not enough hours in the day.” – former UCLA punter Chris Kluwe

She said that it doesn’t work, however, for the revenue-generating athletes, who are providing those opportunities, but don’t have the chance to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

She suggested lifetime scholarships to athletes, to get rid of the pressure to finish their degree on time, because asking them to commit to a full educational experience while spending 50 to 60 hours a week on sports is too much.

Kluwe’s solution was slightly different, however, in that he believes athletes should go to their school first for solely athletics, and then receive the opportunity afterwards to go to that school for education if they want.

“We have to get away from the idea of the student-athlete, because as modern sports have progressed, the athlete part of it is the full-time job,” he said. “It’s unreasonable to expect 18 to 21 year olds to be both students and athletes at the same time.  There’s just not enough hours in the day.” 

Racial Standards

College athletics are given the title of “amateurism.”  However, it’s worth noting that sometimes non-revenue sport athletes are able to make money through their performance in the Olympics, and return to school with no harm done to their amateur eligibility.

Ever since 2001, NCAA athletes have been able to accept money earned from Olympic performances through the Operation Gold program.  The program awards money to medal-winning Olympic athletes, or similar international competition in non-Olympic years.

The Fair Pay to Play Act  recently enacted in California gives student-athletes in that state the opportunity to be compensated for their names and likenesses, something that the NCAA currently does not allow. The law will take effect Jan. 1, 2023.

“My sport sucked money and resources from the institution, but I got the benefit from it. That system works for athletes like me.” – Arizona State University history lecturer and former collegiate runner Victoria Jackson

Jackson said that part of the reason the NCAA wants to retain the ‘amateur’ title is because if the athletes are making money off of their sport, the colleges believe that student-athletes may stop valuing their education.

“This idea that (athletes profiting off of their names and likenesses) would somehow harm their ability to get a degree is dangerous,” Jackson said. “Those types of statements are dangerous to make, because there’s an underlying kind of racial assumption in there. The majority of athletes in revenue-generating sports in the Power 5 (conferences) are black, and if you’re saying; ‘Oh, well they won’t care about school anymore because they’re making some money,’ you’re entering dangerous terrain because we do allow non-revenue sport athletes who participate in the Olympics to keep their prize money and return to school with their amateur eligibility intact.  And those arguments were never put forth.”

She also shared an unfortunate experience she noticed happening in her time as a runner at UNC.  

“When I was at North Carolina, unknown to us at the time, the athletes in the revenue generating sports were being channeled into fake classes,” Jackson said. “So I can point to black male athletes, whose ‘labor’ on the football field or the basketball court paid for my scholarship and my elite athletic experience, but they were denied the education we were all promised.  And that’s really troubling.”

It’s unfortunate that this is happening, but it is certainly another contributing factor as to why athletes may feel exploited.  

Evan Desai is a senior sports journalism major at Arizona State University

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‘No summit too high’ for amputee climbers

ROMP, Cotopaxi
Members of the team pose on the summit (Courtesy Silverline Films)

Seven amputees who found themselves atop a 19,347-foot volcano in Ecuador last month probably never envisioned themselves there together.

Amputee group summited Cotopaxi to show that there are no limitations for para athletes in sport. This group aimed to raise visibility and funds to equip more people with prosthetic limbs.

But with the proper prosthetic limbs and training for the climb, the group reached the summit of Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest volcanoes, as part of a team of 26 climbers with the nonprofit Range of Motion Project (ROMP). 

“We are trying to show the world what is possible when you have access to the right prosthetic technology,” said Lauren Panasewicz, ROMP’s director of development. “When you have access to the right tools, the right team and the right mindset, no summit is too high.”

The amputees on the team included Kirstie Ennis, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who lost her leg in Afghanistan and became a Paralympic snowboarder; cyclist Meg Fisher, who totalled four medals at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics, including two time-trial gold medals in London, and Sandy Dukat, a three-time medalist in Paralympics skiing in the 2002 and 2006 games who also set world records for above-the-knee amputees in the marathon and triathlon.

The elite athletes have different stories behind becoming amputees, athletes and climbers. But everyone in the group climbed Cotopaxi with the common goals of fundraising for and increasing awareness of amputees who lack the prosthetic care they need. The team raised more than $100,000 – enough to provide prosthetic limbs for 100 amputees in Latin America and the U.S. 

To the group of amputees, volunteers and ROMP staff who committed to months of training and raising funds, the summit was not just a personal achievement. They came together for the purpose of improving care for amputees and demonstrating what amputees can do.

“The elite athletes of the world — what they do is an amazing display of the human body and what it’s capable of,” Ennis said. “But I think, especially for us adaptive climbers and especially people like me who are adaptive adventure athletes, it’s truly a display of the human spirit.”

The problem ROMP is up against is daunting, but the solution is simple.

“Eighty percent of amputees live in the developing world. Less than 5 percent of them have access to prosthetic care,” Panasewicz said.

Kirstie Ennis, Cotopaxi, ROMP
Kirstie Ennis negotiates the snowfield on Cotopaxi. (Courtesy Silverline Films)

Because health care is lacking in developing countries, a minor injury can cause infection that goes unchecked, or diabetes can go untreated. The result is often an amputation. And many areas have no prosthetic clinics, so amputees have no way of getting a prosthesis even if they can afford one.

“The solution is building partnerships with already existing clinics and offering affordable care for people,” Panasewicz said.

ROMP has a stand-alone clinic in Guatemala, where people can get evaluated for their first prostheses, have an existing one serviced or get new liners or prosthetic adjustments. ROMP purchases new components, refurbishes donated prosthetics and invents new devices to meet the needs of patients.

ROMP has also partnered with other foundations and operated a mobile clinic in Mexico and Honduras.

“The solution is more trained professionals, and more funding to get the right technology to where it needs to be,” Panasewicz said.

ROMP asks patients to invest in their own care at a highly discounted rate, to cover a portion of the device’s cost, which helps keep the program sustainable, Panasewicz said. But when someone can’t pay, the organization finds a way to cover it. ROMP also helps amputees in the U.S. who face financial hardship or lack insurance. 

Amputees in the U.S. have “very real complaints about accessibility and structural and emotional barriers, and the prejudice that comes with it,” Dukat said. But in some developing countries, accessibility is not just difficult; it is nonexistent.

 “It is hard to feel acknowledged living with a disability in a developing country,” she said.

“I constantly feel like I’m in a state of defense with my disability – and proving my true abilities, and what is possible and what I can do,” Dukat said, adding that in some countries she “wouldn’t even have the opportunity to defend myself, because it’s not even seen as something worth listening to. That is a very blunt contrast, but that’s what we’re dealing with.” 

The clinics and tools amputees need are easy to find in the U.S., but they are expensive and often difficult to get.

 “People have this misconception that somebody can just go out and get a leg,” Ennis said. “Well, no two legs are the same. Everything is custom. To be able to be efficient on your limb, you have to go to a good prosthetist.”

Ennis lost her leg in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, and she said she is thankful that she lost her leg through military service rather than cancer, for example, because her military health insurance offers better coverage than private health insurers do. Amputees with private insurance often have a hard time getting what they need, she said.

And, beyond getting the appropriate prosthesis, “you have to take the time to educate yourself on how to use it, and unfortunately, insurance companies are not really taking time to make sure that their patients are trained on their limbs,” Ennis explained. “So even if they have the resources, they don’t know how to properly use them to actually get the most benefits from them.”

Dukat said that a clause in her health insurance policy at one point covered only one prosthesis for her entire lifetime – with no coverage for a replacement or repairs.

 “My first prosthesis was made for me when I was 10 months old,” she said. “If that’s truly what I was restricted to, I would have blown my one use at 10 months and never remembered it.”

“The elite athletes of the world – what they do is an amazing display of the human body and what it’s capable of. But I think, especially for us adaptive climbers and especially people like me who are adaptive adventure athletes, it’s truly a display of the human spirit.” – Kirstie Ennis, Paralympic snowboarder

There also are restrictions on what sort of technology amputees in the U.S. can access. For instance, coverage might pay for a prosthetic leg suitable for walking, but not one designed for running or swimming. For those, athletes often must pay out of pocket, Panasewicz said. A walking leg can range from $5,000 to $50,000, depending on the level of amputation and complexity of the device, she said. A running leg can range from $15,000 to $25,000. 

“We believe that every amputee should be able to access the prosthetic care that they need to live their best life,” she said. “So if you want to be a runner, you should be able to get a running leg. We believe it’s a human right.”

Mobility encompasses much more than the ability to walk or play sports.

 “When your mobility is stripped away from you, it affects your entire life,” both physically and emotionally, Panasewicz said.

Dukat agreed.

 “What it brings to someone’s livelihood is irreplaceable,” she said.

“It’s easy to look at a leg and say, ‘it’s just a leg,’ but it could give somebody the opportunity to take care of their family, or it can restrict somebody to living a very sheltered life and just living off Social Security,” Ennis said. “I’m a firm believer in what the power of mobility can do for somebody.”

The climb

To make that point, the amputees targeted the top of Cotopaxi. Their summit of the active volcano marked Climbing for ROMPs fifth anniversary, which included 50 community climbs worldwide in 2019.  

Dukat said she was struck by the collective energy of 26 people committed to the same mission.

 “It was truly inspiring to watch the motivation and determination of every one of us that stepped up to the plate to raise the money, climb the mountain and then make sure that care is provided,” she said.

Several ROMP patients joined the elite team on one of its two training hikes leading up to Cotopaxi.

 

ROMP, Cotopaxi
Carla Perez, Rebecca Boozan, Kirstie Ennis, LP, Sara Kieser, Sandy Dukat. (Courtesy Silverline Films)

“It’s awesome that we were able to have a team of climbers at Rucu Pichincha who were ROMP patients,” Dukat said.

Panasewicz added, “They thanked us for being a part of getting more Ecuadorian amputees prosthetic care.”

Fisher climbed Cotopaxi with ROMP last year as well. 

“Last year, I felt very physically capable, primarily because I had a well-fitting prosthesis,” she said. “And this year I’ve been needing to get a new socket, because my fit has changed.”

She wasn’t sure she would be able to complete the climb with the ill-fitting prosthesis. She managed, but said the climb was more difficult.

“Last year, I was able to climb quickly, and actually help other people who were struggling. This year, I was the one who was struggling. I was in quite a bit of pain,” she said.

“When your mobility is stripped away from you, it affects your entire life.” – Lauren Panasewicz, ROMP’s director of development

The experience was humbling and served as “a reminder that I was lucky I could still climb that mountain. I still had the resources, and I still had people to help me, so I could do that. And so many people can’t,” Fisher added.

One climber from Mexico had the same prosthetic knee as Ennis, but she didn’t know how to use it well, especially going down stairs or on inclines or declines. So Ennis helped show her.

 “We did a bunch of different exercises to help her learn how to use it the right way,” for her day-to-day use, “and then we got her on other terrain to help maneuver a little more efficiently,” Ennis said. “Once she picked it up, I started crying. I was like a proud mom. You could tell that it actually clicked, and it was great.”

The healing power of sports

Ennis said that sports saved her life.

“Mountaineering has been in my life for only a few years,” she said. “But snowboarding is what got me out of the hospital and got me, along with my support system, back to being who I really was. It gave me that confidence that I can go out and do anything.”

Still, there was more to endure. Ennis’s last amputation was in 2016, after she already had emerged as an elite snowboarder. But that led her down a new path.

 “Snowboarding was too much of an impact, and I lost the 2016-17 snowboarding season to the surgery, and so I decided I was going to take to the mountains in a different way,” she said. “I decided I was going to climb the highest point in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro, and it was really just an effort to keep me focused and give me a goal to train for – and keep my eyes up, if you will.”

ROMP, Cotopaxi
The team hikes up the foothills (Courtesy Silverline Films)

The Kilimanjaro climb was a success, and Ennis raised money for clean water for east Tanzanians. Next, she established a team of women veterans to climb Denali, the 20,310-foot peak in Alaska, and now she has set out to become the first female above-the-knee amputee to climb the seven summits – the highest peak on each of the world’s seven continents. She was the first woman amputee to summit Aconcagua, the 22,837-foot monster in Argentina.

Ennis has established the Kirstie Ennis Foundation, which aims to improve quality of life for people and, she said, to “push the advancements in medical-device technology and spread the message of inclusion.”

“The outdoors is there for all of us,” she said. “Do I think that we should build ramps up to the top of Everest? Absolutely not. But I do think there are things that we can put in place to be able to make these things accessible and attainable so that people can heal in the outdoors.” 

For her work, Ennis received the Pat Tillman Award for Service at the ESPYS in July. The award is named for the former Arizona State and Arizona Cardinals player, who gave up his football career to serve in the elite Army Rangers. He was killed in Afghanistan.

Dukat noted that sports offer a way to achieve incremental successes. 

“We benefit from feedback in our lives,” she said. “You can see that you went further on your bike today than yesterday, or you are now making baskets from your wheelchair. You see results pretty quickly.”

Dukat is a Paralympic swimmer and skier who medaled three times in alpine skiing. When she decided to try running, she started by running 30 seconds on a treadmill, and then one lap around a track, “and I felt successful,” she said. “We all like successes in our lives.” 

But, she pointed out, the goal doesn’t have to be as lofty as climbing a mountain.

“Your summit is the goal you set for yourself,” which could be walking a block or getting back in the swimming pool.

“I think we heal through sports,” Dukat said. “There’s a reason why we introduce people who have been recently injured to adaptive sports – because it’s a way to regain identity, confidence, self-esteem, everything that gets wrapped up in that bubble.”

As her competitive career was waning, Dukat and four other para-alpine ski racers decided to climb Kilimanjaro to raise awareness of women athletes with physical impairments and to provide scholarships for them.

 “It starts getting people to think differently about what’s possible among the disability community,  and among themselves,” she said.

When ROMP founder Dave Krupa invited her to join ROMP for the 2015 Cotopaxi climb, Dukat said it was good timing.

“The outdoors is there for all of us. Do I think that we should build ramps up to the top of Everest? Absolutely not. But I do think there are things that we can put in place to be able to make these things accessible and attainable so that people can heal in the outdoors.” – Kirstie Ennis

“I was just enough years away from retirement from competitive sports,” she explained. “I was just starting to need a goal to work toward. I needed something to put myself into.”

Fisher also understands how sports can motivate. She is now a physical therapist. She played tennis in college and lost her leg following an automobile collision when she was 19. Eleven months after her amputation, she completed her first triathlon.

“Sports for me has been tremendously motivational,” Fisher said. “I was back on the tennis court even before I could walk. I was on an office chair with wheels before I had a prosthesis, scooting around teaching tennis.”

Panasewicz said people often take their mobility for granted until they lose it.

“I know a lot of people who are more athletic now after losing a limb,” she said. “It lights a fire to take advantage of your mobility with a healthy body.”

And she said people may have no idea what an amputee is capable of achieving until they see it.

“I’m an able-bodied female athlete, and Cotopaxi is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Panasewicz said. “So watching someone else do it on one leg is like, ‘damn, that is awesome.’ ”

The group that summited Cotopaxi shared the experience of climbing a mountain together, showing what they can do, and advocating for others who lack mobility. The climb is a testament to “the resilience of the human spirit and body,” Fisher said.

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor based in metro Detroit. You can read more of her work here

Better helmets, sensored mouth guards part of effort to make football safer

custom mouthguard, Bemidji State
Custom mouth guards help measure potential concussive forces in football players. (Photo courtesy Collin Boyles/Bemidji State Athletics)

In the 2015 movie “Concussion,” Will Smith’s character, pathologist Bennet Omalu, said, “We can derive more intelligent, more brain-friendly ways we can play football.”

Examining injury trends over the 100+ years of professional football has led to safety innovations from the leather helmet to the face mask to sensored mouth guards that measure concussive force.

From rules changes such as penalizing and ejecting players initiating contact with their helmets to designing helmets to better distribute the force of a blow, there has been a concerted effort in recent years to advance the safety aspects of football so that the sport does, indeed, become more “brain friendly.”

“There is always more to be done,” said Sean Sansiveri, Vice President, Business and Legal Affairs at the NFL Players Association, the labor organization that represents the league’s players, past and present. “We like to say that the NFLPA will go anywhere that science brings us and nowhere it doesn’t. That is certainly the effort we are trying to pursue here. I think it is progressing. It’s never fast enough and we have a long way to go, but we are happy that we have come as far as we have.”

As the NFL celebrates its 100th anniversary, protecting players has certainly come a long way, from the soft, leather helmets introduced in the 1920s to the first polycarbonate helmets of the 1980s to today’s helmets that are engineered to mitigate impact forces.

A modern helmet is much more than a shiny, colorful, dome-like headgear worn by players from the NFL down to youth leagues. Rather, it can be likened to several puzzle pieces connecting to create the final, protective product.

“The helmet acts as a system,” said Thad Ide, senior vice president of research and product development for football gear manufacturer Riddell. “People tend to want to emphasize one particular aspect over another sometimes, but don’t lose sight of the fact that the helmet is a complete system designed to protect the head of the wearer.”

Flexible outer shells are designed to improve impact response, and polyurethane and synthetic rubber and foam materials are critical components of an inner structure engineered to absorb and decrease the force transferred to the skull.
An analogy often used in the design of helmet safety is borrowed from the automotive industry.

Vicis, Zero1, helmet
Vicis Zero 1 helmet (Courtesy Vicis)

“We look at the helmet almost like a car bumper,” said Colette Foreman, director of product management at Vicis, another helmet manufacturer. “It can bend and buckle and absorb kinetic energy.”

The automotive analogy hits home with Kristy Arbogast, co-scientific director and director of engineering for the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and an NFLPA engineering consultant on topics injury related.

 In her role with the players association, Arbogast works closely with the league’s engineering consultants to analyze injury data and advance a variety of initiatives to improve the safety of players.

“What we have tried to do is bring some of the methods and approaches that have driven innovations in auto safety to the sports world,” she said, noting that some of her colleagues working with the NFLPA have automotive safety backgrounds.

“So many of the concepts are transferable on how you manage the energy of the impact. As long as you systematically study what those impacts are, whether it be a car crash or helmet-to-helmet collision on the football field, engineers can come up with ways to manage those impacts.”

What they have come up with are helmets such as the Vicis ZERO 1, Riddell Precision Fit and LIGHT LS1, which are among those in use throughout college football and the NFL and other levels of the sport.

The University of Washington, which is where Vicis’ technology was developed, started using the ZERO 1 on a trial basis in 2016 before using them in games during the 2018 season. The helmet’s inner design includes flexible pillars.

“When you look at how the helmet is built, their goal was to increase the helmet’s ability to absorb rotational force with the little pillars inside the helmet,” Rob Scheidderger, UW’s director of medical services and head athletic trainer, said of the Vicis technology. “So, when you take an impact it can actually absorb a little bit of the impact as well as a little bit of rotational force.”

The inner-helmet construction varies in design by company. The LIGHT LS1 helmet incorporates auxetic foam padding manufactured by Florida-based Auxadyne.

“We look at the helmet almost like a car bumper. It can bend and buckle and absorb kinetic energy.” – Colette Foreman, director of product management at Vicis

Company founder and president Joe Condon uses the example of a marshmallow to describe how auxetic foam responds to impact. If you pinched a marshmallow, it would move outward or away from the point of compression. That is how conventional foam responds.

Auxetic foam does the opposite. It becomes denser at the point of contact.

“Auxetic foam is the opposite in that the structure collapses unto itself and moves to the load,” said Condon. “The more it is pressed at the point of pressure, it gets denser and denser to support the load.”

This is an example of how multiple technologies are, and can continue to be, used in the manufacture of a football helmet. Manufacturers are motivated to improve their technology through initiatives such as the NFL Helmet Challenge that will culminate in 2021 with a $1-million award to the manufacturer that submits the best prototype.

“I think that technology and material science is likely the answer,” said Condon. “I think combining different technologies is probably the optimal solution. I don’t think there is one element that will get the best solution.”

(Courtesy Riddell)

Riddell utilizes a 3D printing lattice liner system within its helmets. This technology allows the 90-year-old company to precisely fit helmets based on scans on the surfaces of a player’s head without having to create individual tools to make the liner set.

“It’s kind of the perfect technology for that sort of a custom fit system,” Ide said. “When you combine that with the way the lattices work, a combination of the right materials and the right lattice structure really allows you to do a nice job of dampening the impact energy that the players receive.”

In recent years sensor technology in helmets has become a critical piece of the head safety puzzle. The use of sensors allows for the collection of data over the course of a season or multiple seasons that can be analyzed and applied to engineer safer equipment.

“We take that and look at injury trends and impacts over the course of the season and impacts when an athlete has an injury and try to figure out if there is a trend that goes along with all of that,”  Schieddeger said.

Riddell invested in sensor technology 15 years ago. Ide noted that starting in 2004, North Carolina and Virginia Tech began using the helmets in games. In 2014, Riddell launched its InSite Training Technology that informed the sideline via an alert when an atypical impact took place on the field. That evolved into being a web-based tool today that provides coaches and training staff information concerning individual player impact exposure.

“It’s done with the goal of changing behavior, reducing overall head impact exposure to the player,”  Ide said. “I think five years from now it will be very difficult to purchase a football helmet that doesn’t come equipped with some sort of sensing technology like that.” 

With helmet technology rapidly advancing, it may be difficult to keep track of not only what is on the market, but how effective it is.

“I think that technology and material science is likely the answer. I think combining different technologies is probably the optimal solution. I don’t think there is one element that will get the best solution.” – Joe Condon, Auxadyne founder and president

Since 2011, researchers at Virginia Tech have played the role of Consumer Reports when it comes to helmet safety. A five-star rating system, utilized across several sports including football, identifies helmets that best reduce — but don’t eliminate — the chances of sustaining a concussion. Also, a helmet that might be ideal for one person might not be the best headgear for another player.

“No helmet is concussion proof,” Foreman said. “We don’t look at football as a sport. We look at the athletes who are actually playing the game, and our mission, our goal is that we are going to protect athletes of all ages with the helmet and protection that is best for them.”

While no helmet is concussion-proof, thanks to their innovative designs and better awareness in dealing with concussions, the NFL experienced a decline from 281 reported concussions in 2017 to 214 in 2018. There were 243 concussions in 2016 with the spike in 2017 attributed by Sansiveri to better reporting through protocols put in place by the league, such as sideline spotters.

“Last season over 50 percent of our diagnosed concussions came from self-reports,” said Sansiveri. “That just demonstrates the major cultural shift. Last year (Steelers quarterback) Ben Roethlisberger took himself out because he said he wasn’t feeling right. So, if a star player feels comfortable doing that, I think that is really quite the game changer.”

Sensored mouthguards have also been developed. Mouthguards, in combination with helmets, benefit in absorbing impact. 

“There is a little bit of head-impact reduction,” said Schieddeger. “If you take a hit to the chin and you are wearing your mouthguard, then it will decrease the force transmitted to the brain.”

The problem experienced with sensored mouthguards is discomfort wearing them, which has resulted in low compliance.

Last year, Bemidji State (Minnesota) University had 27 players wear sensored mouthguards made by Prevent Biometrics. They were used on a trial basis during spring practice, but not during the season.

Heather Bates, BSU’s assistant athletic trainer, noted that although the players liked the fact that the company scanned their teeth for a custom fit,  some players complained that the mouthguards were too big.

Data emitted by the sensors was collected on an iPad and provided live data on the type of hits a player was absorbing. Some of the data was flawed, though, because of a common habit among football players.

One of the sensored mouth guards used by Bemidji State University from Prevent Biometrics. (Photo courtesy Collin Boyles/Bemidji State University)

“Everybody likes that they were customized,” said Bates. “But one problem that we ran into is that, of course, football players love to chew on their mouthguard. So, they couldn’t do that and those that did typically ended up not liking them. They ruined them so that it no longer fit their mouths.”

In another instance, a player’s mouthguard continuously emitted signals indicating he was repeatedly taking a tremendous amount of impact. He had shoved the mouthguard into a pocket.

There is no question that mouthguards can contribute to player safety, and not just for the protective qualities. Last year, in an effort to get more detailed data about the impact players sustain on the field, the NFL teamed with the University of Virginia on a trial basis to test sensored mouthguards, which are being used by four NFL teams this season.

“The mouthguard is not a concussion-preventing technology, rather a data collection technology,” said Arbogast. “Until you implement something like an instrumented mouthguard, we don’t really know what those impacts are. We know (the impacts) are there. You can watch on Sunday afternoon and figure out that they are, but we can’t put qualitative values to it without some sort of sensor. 

“The best biomechanical place to put a sensor is kind of anchored to the skeletal part of your body versus the helmet, which moves relative to the head. So, mouthguards are a good place to anchor those sensors.”

With respect to helmets, the next wave could be designs based upon where a player lines up on the gridiron. A lineman, for example, experiences less severe blows, but there are more repetitive over the course of practice or a game. Players on punt and kick coverage and return units are more prone to high-speed collisions.

“If you think about different positions, (players) tend to wear different shoes and different pads,” said Arbogast. “I think one of the things we would like to advance, the NFLPA and the NFL together, is the idea of position-specific helmets. A lineman experiences different kinds of impacts that a quarterback does. So, can we optimize their protection by optimizing their helmet design?”

With the data the league, the players association and manufacturers continue to collect and study, that answer may not be far down the road.

Correction: Joe Condon was misidentified. He is the founder and president of Auxadyne.

Tom Layberger has spent more than 25 years as a writer, editor and web producer for various media outlets. Tom, who resides in Tampa, is a graduate of the University of South Florida. Follow him on Twitter @TomLay810

Editor’s note: For the 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.

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