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Tackling Brain Injuries — Q&A with the NFL’s Jeff Miller

Jeff Miller Nfl
November 20, 2014
Preventing brain injury is a team sport. That’s why the NFL has teamed up with GE and Under Armour to promote some of the most innovative thinking on protecting against and diagnosing concussions.

3D-printed helmet liners, smart helmet tethers to minimize head acceleration, portable headsets enabling concussion diagnosis on the sidelines — these are a few of the seven winning ideas of the recent Head Health Challenge II. Each winner receives a $500,000 grant, with the opportunity to collect another $1 million toward their work in protecting against brain injury.

The challenges are part of the NFL’s efforts to not only improve the safety of both professional and young players of the sport, but to advance the science and technology around preventing brain injuries, says Jeff Miller, senior vice president for health and safety policy at the NFL.

“Whether we are considering better identifying mild traumatic brain injury or better protection from the injury, the ideas that we are awarding will have an impact well beyond football,” he says.

In tapping into some of the brightest minds of academia, industry and the military, “the hope is that the helmets of the future are born from initiatives like the challenge,” says Miller. But he also explains during a recent interview with Ideas Lab how improving safety requires more than technology — with increasing awareness and a change in culture playing a central role:


The Head Health Challenge is part of a growing focus on head injuries in football. How important is it to address this issue for the future of the sport and the safety of the kids and pros who play it?

Critical. It’s why we pushed for youth concussion laws in all 50 states, which has now become a reality, and why we support USA Football’s Heads Up Football campaign, as well as the Centers for Disease Control’s concussion curriculum on concussion recognition and response. There’s both a trickle down effect and a trickle up effect when it comes to this education. And, of course, it goes beyond football. We are proud that initiatives like the Head Health Challenge have to the potential to benefit not only athletes, but service members and the general population as well.


The first round of the challenge focused largely on diagnosing concussions, but this round is exploring innovations in everything from helmet and turf design to tackling techniques. Is it going to take a comprehensive approach to minimize the risk of brain injury?

There are a number of initiatives under way that will make football, and all sports, safer. Catalyzing the development of better protective equipment, rules changes, educating coaches and athletes about head injuries and improving technique are just some of the efforts we have underway. Changing the culture to improve awareness and safety is needed, and we embrace our leadership role on the issue.


Football is often considered a high-tech sport. How much of a role will technology play in making it safer?

Football has always taken advantage of improvements in science to make the game better on the field and for our fans off the field. These same advances have made the game safer, as well. Improvements in technology, engineering and materials science all hold the potential to improve the equipment, the turf, as well as the diagnostics and ability to better track recovery from injuries. The NFL prides itself on innovation, and certainly our approach to player safety is no exception.


What materials are currently in use in football helmets, and how old is the science behind existing helmet tech?

Helmets were designed to prevent against skull fracture. Most experts will tell you that many helmets do an incredible job on that front. They were not, however, designed to protect the athlete from concussion. That is something the sporting goods industry is working to address, and we are encouraged to see their progress. The second Head Health Challenge will encourage progress, as well.


When will we see a fundamentally new helmet — perhaps even a smart one that can provide data to help prevent future injuries?

The goal of the challenge is to stimulate that development. The challenge exposed us to some new and exciting helmet ideas that were awarded prizes. And through the challenge, we saw even more ideas that were not quite as mature as the winners but would be advances as well. Initiatives like the challenge are critical in advancing the science and innovation behind helmet design and other equipment advances. The hope is that the helmets of the future are born from initiatives like the challenge.


How are concussions currently diagnosed in the NFL, and what is the potential for new technology to improve the speed and accuracy of the diagnosis?

Our concussion protocol begins from the moment of suspected injury to the point at which a player is cleared to return to play. Concussions are diagnosed by internationally accepted protocols, led by team physicians — with assistance from unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants as well as athletic trainers stationed high above the field to spot potential injuries. Team medical staffs make use of technology, including instant replay, to look closely at plays with potential injuries, and they benefit by having access to the concussion protocol and electronic medical records on tablets that they can access throughout the game. In the second challenge, there are two winners who have developed objective ways to identify concussions with multi-modal measurements to better identify the injury.


Since the first Head Health Challenge winners were announced in January, have any of their proposals led to breakthroughs? Or will this be more of a long-term process?

As part of each of the challenges, the sponsors are working with the winners to develop further the technologies. The winners of the first challenge owe the sponsors status reports this month as they work toward winning an even larger prize if they are selected at the end of the year. The technologies are in different stages of development, but we looked for those that are closer to market.


There’s a lot of focus on brain science right now, including the president’s BRAIN initiative? How much potential does the Head Health Challenge hold in advancing our understanding of how the brain functions and contributing to the health of the general public?

There will be substantial advances in the science from both of the challenges. Whether we are considering better identifying mild traumatic brain injury or better protection from the injury, the ideas that we are awarding will have an impact well beyond football. They will translate to other sports and recreational activities and be useful throughout our daily lives.

Top GIF: video courtesy of Head Health Challenge.


Jeff Miller serves as Senior Vice President for Health and Safety Policy for the National Football League. Miller oversees the NFL’s player health and safety programs, scientific research and youth football programs. He previously served as head of the NFL’s Washington office. As Senior Vice President for Public Affairs, Miller was responsible for all state and federal legislative and regulatory initiatives and oversaw the league’s charitable foundation.