Can VR concussion education save youth football?

USA Football and Pop Warner are hoping VR can help make an inherently dangerous sport safer.

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With the Super Bowl nearly upon us, the NFL chalked up a season that saw year-over-year ratings growth, reaffirming the popularity of the league. The rabid fanbase, aided by fantasy players and savvy media domination, continues to grow, dispute now incontrovertible evidence that the sport carries a high risk of brain injury and a degenerative neurological disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Pro football isn't going anywhere soon. But youth football is more vulnerable, as this New York Times report showed last year. Top leagues and schools are looking for solutions to preserve the sport while increasing safety. Critics say there's no way to make a sport dominated by contact completely safe, but a niche industry of equipment and technology dedicated to the concussion problem has sprung up.

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The latest entrant is a VR education platform called, fittingly, CrashCourse. Developed in collaboration between TeachAids and Stanford University, the idea is to put users in a simulated high school football came so they can feel the consequences of a concussion.

"In distributing CrashCourse VR to youth players and coaches, we are seeing just how important and dynamic these materials are," said CEO & Executive Director of USA Football Scott Hallenbeck. "Starring college football players, the VR software offers new opportunities to educate youth athletes in a language they can relate to." 

VR has become a tremendously popular technology in training and simulation, making quick inroads into the enterprise, particularly in the areas of HR and service technician training, as well as in traditional school settings. Advocates promote an experiential learning experience that doesn't cost trainers significant money beyond initial development. 

CrashCourse is built atop a research-based pedagogical methodology and curriculum developed by TeachAids through research at Stanford. The software is available free to anyone for Oculus Rift and Oculus Go on the Oculus store, with specialized applications in classrooms, hospitals, and sports museums, in addition to general use.

The partnership with Pop Warner and USA Football builds on existing relationships. In 2018, Pop Warner Little Scholars was the first partner organization to distribute an early version of CrashCourse that relied on video only, not virtual reality, to their 325,000 participants. In 2019, USA Football was the first organization to provide an official "Certificate of Completion" for all youth athletes who successfully finish the CrashCourse curriculum. 

"By integrating the most up-to-date medical knowledge with state-of-the-art technology, TeachAids has developed a uniquely engaging and effective way to ingrain healthy behaviors in our youth," says Jon Butler, Executive Director of Pop Warner Little Scholars. "As an organization that is constantly developing new approaches to advance safety for our players, we are proud to be partnering with TeachAids to provide materials that are fundamentally different from other educational models that have been created before." 

Whether the software will have an impact on concussion outcomes remains to be seen. The initial CrashCourse curriculum has been delivered via USA Football's online course library more than 9,000 times sine June 2019 which is impressive but accounts for a small fraction of the millions of kids who play football each year. Still, proponents are optimistic that VR could have a positive impact.

"VR is an incredibly powerful medium with proven ability to increase empathy and change behavior," explained Dr. Piya Sorcar, CEO of TeachAids. "In this digital native generation, we are excited to be among the first to use the uniquely immersive features of VR to help solve important health issues. We hope that these educational materials will provide young football players, as well as youth in all sports, with the knowledge and tools necessary to keep themselves safer."