Better mousetraps: How inventors plan to change football

Working in garages or big labs, hundreds have tried to ‘improve’ the game. Few have succeeded.

Chuck Burton/AP
Collision: Carolina Panthers’ Dan Morgan, left, brings down New England Patriots’ Sammy Morris.

Football is mostly a game of throwing, running, and tackling – all human feats. Players use strength and strategy to propel the ball across the goal line. What could make it better?

According to some inventors, plenty. Technology, they say, can make the game faster, more fair, and less dangerous for players. The National Football League (NFL) is slow to adopt certain changes, but these plucky tinkerers push on, driven by a desire to solve problems, a love of the game, and hopes that their designs gain a few more yards each year.

Take the chains that have been used for decades to measure a first down. Super Bowls have been decided by inches, depending on how far the ball was advanced on certain plays. That leaves a lot of room for human error, says Alan Amron, a professional inventor from Woodbury, N.Y. He is the brains behind motorized squirt guns.

Surveyors get very accurate measurements using gyroscopes and laser beams, he says. Why not apply that to football?

The result was an electronic version of the familiar sticks. Instead of just a chain, the sticks are equipped with a gyroscope and laser beam combination that, he says, gives a much more accurate measure of the first-down line.

This isn’t his first shot at improving football. Mr. Amron’s company, First Down Laser Systems, proposed using low-power lasers to project the first-down line on the field back in 2003, allowing players to see the same thing as TV viewers. The NFL rejected the idea, citing cost and safety concerns.
Amron’s sticks will soon go before the NFL competition committee. Even with the support of broadcast commentator and former player Pat Summerall, the new invention isn’t a done deal.

“They’re still discussing instant replay every year,” Amron says. Replay was introduced more than 30 years ago.

Football uses a lot of equipment, so it seems particularly prone to patents. A search reveals hundreds, most of which never made it to the field. For instance, a patent was granted in the early 1970s for special goal posts that would light up when a field goal was scored.

Priya Narasimhan focused on the ball. She’s a rabid Steelers fan and professor of electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. One day, she was watching her team when the referee made a tough call on a pass that she thought was completed beyond the first-down marker.

“Would it be possible to accurately track the ball in flight?” Ms. Narasimhan wondered. “I was thinking, if the ball could talk [it could] say ‘I landed here, then somebody nudged me.’ ”

Even with instant replay, she says, there’s often uncertainty, especially if the ball is concealed in the scrum of players.

A tracking device inside the ball could tell referees and viewers whether it had reached the first-down line when it was caught, eliminating the guesswork.

She and a group of students, one of whom was a running back for Carnegie Mellon’s football team, designed a ball that uses small accelerometers. Devices on the sidelines then track the ball via GPS and gather data on its speed and bearing. The acceleration of the ball in a given direction can show whether a player had fumbled it or not.

Some researchers are trying to increase safety by enhancing helmets to collect data on injuries players suffer. Plastic helmets were introduced in the 1950s, and the basic design has been the same ever since. But now some college trainers are using the Helmet Impact Telemetry (HIT) System to measure the force of a hit to a player’s head.

Sensors inside the helmet relay collision information to a computer on the sideline. The system helps trainers assess how serious a player’s head injury might be. Even if the system never gets to the NFL, it could answer questions such as whether large neck muscles help mitigate injuries, notes John Stephens, director of operations at Simbex, the Lebanon, N.H., company that developed the HIT System.

Some Division I teams, including the University of Oklahoma and Virginia Tech, are using the system.

Colleges often are the testing ground for on-field technology. Schools and coaches at that level may be more daring and curious than the owners of multimillion-dollar pro teams. New equipment can also debut in high school games, where parents are much more receptive to new safety measures.

But sometimes, it takes the deep pockets of pro leagues to push innovation. Wilson, the official provider of balls to the NFL, has a new material that provides a better grip. The company runs a large R&D lab devoted to equipment for the pros – and making sure no garage inventor one-ups them.

While some of the new technologies sound exotic, small change has always been a part of football.

Mr. Summerall, who played in the 1950s, notes that shoulder pads once soaked up sweat and got very heavy. By the end of the game, players lost a lot of their speed. Now, pads are made of plastic or composites, and players are nearly as fast in the fourth quarter as the first.

But even with the new equipment and new data, some things will remain the same, says Summerall. All the technology in the world can’t replace a good referee. “One thing the NFL doesn’t want to take out of the game is a certain amount of drama,” he says.

New technology in other sports

Baseball: A bat is traditionally made of a single piece of wood – often ash or maple. Lately, some manufacturers have experimented with bats crafted from layers of wood. The new process creates bats that are more flexible and resist breaking. Asian teams have adopted new materials, such as bamboo, which allow for lighter bats with as much strength as traditional woods. Bamboo is also a greener choice, as it takes only a short time to regrow. In the United State, the Brett Brothers Bat Company has been offering both layered and bamboo models. So far, the layered bats have been approved for use in some minor leagues.

Hockey: Harder metals aren’t the only way to improve skates. Thermablade, a Canadian company, makes ice skates that come with a built-in battery that heats the blade, reducing surface friction. The National Hockey League tested the new skates during practices and a few games last year, and retired star Wayne Gretzky has signed on as a Thermablade investor.

Basketball: In Australia, a team at the University of Sydney is testing basketball uniforms that display game information on small panels sewn onto the fabric and connected to an iPod-sized device. The uniform could show how many points a player has scored and track his or her personal fouls.

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