UVa Researchers Engineer Safety for the Football Field

Oct 19, 2015

When it comes to risk of injury, football ranks as one of the most dangerous among mainstream sports. For the past several years, a pair of biomechanical engineers at the University of Virginia have been seeking the best and most innovative ways to prevent injuries through the design of safety equipment. WMRA’s Sefe Emokpae has this report.

[Sounds from an NFL game]

American Football is one of the country’s most popular sports. Millions of fans tune in every week to watch their favorite teams hit the field and their favorite players put their skills to the test. But underneath the colorful jerseys and the increasingly flashy helmets that distinguish one team from the other…. Science is at work to keep the players as safe as possible.

Richard Kent is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and deputy director for the Center for Applied Biomechanics at the University of Virginia. For the past seven years he and fellow engineer Jeff Crandall have been using their expertise in car crash testing and applying the same principles to testing safety equipment for the National Football League.

RICHARD KENT: Well, it’s interesting because there are a lot of parallels between the two fields. If you think about it, the magnitudes of loading, the rates of loading are not entirely different between particularly elite level football and car crashes.

Kent says he and Crandall’s work revolves around defining human tolerance to high force impact… whether from an automobile or a 300-lb. linebacker.

[Sound of impact testing from inside the lab]

In Kent’s private lab he tests every thing from helmets...to shoulder pads... to cleats and even the types of turf that goes under them. With their findings the team makes equipment recommendations for the NFL, which has a number of safety committees and panels assembled to determine the most efficient ways to prevent short-term and long-term injuries. And while head injuries are what may come to mind first… Kent says the focus has turned to less protected areas.

KENT: You know we make rule changes, we have improved helmets, we’re continuously doing work to protect the head.  People are tackling lower now and so it’s an ongoing challenge to protect the lower limbs. One of the big wins that we’ve had in the past few years is getting shoe manufacturers to make cleat patterns that are specifically designed for artificial surfaces.

Kent says many football stadiums are outfitted with a range of different types of turfs, both artificial and real, but players continue to use the same shoes no matter the venue. And what’s more, he says the shoe-sizing method has becoming dated. He and Crandall determined that most players are wearing shoes that don’t fit -- and don’t protect -- the way they should.

KENT: One of the messages that we’re trying to get out there is that players should use a different shoe that’s tailored specifically to the surface they’re on and that shoe companies should make those kinds of shoes available to players.

The pair came up with a new shoe-sizing device that helps to identify shoes that directly match the dimensions of a player’s feet. The method is already being utilized within the NFL. But what about performance? Kent and Crandall say when dealing with professional athletes such as those in the NFL, there’s a fine line between ultimate protection… and ultimate performance design.

KENT: Balancing those trade-offs is really what the entire field of biomechanical engineering is all about is you take competing intentions for a product, so something that needs to be fast and safe and how you balance those competing design goals in the best possible way, that’s really what engineering is all about.