Everyone knows football is in trouble.
The biggest part of the problem can be summed up in one word. Concussions.
Well, the U.S. Navy has the same problem, but they have an unlimited budget, and so they're dealing with it.
They have put out a request for proposal aimed at developing a brain scanner that can be used right after the injury occurs. They want prototypes ready for testing next year.
The hope is that soldiers may wear brain scanners in their helmets, that can detect the severity of an injury and lead to faster treatment (or better helmets), saving lives and minds for civilian life.
The request comes at a good time. What seemed impossible a few years ago now seems very possible. Nearly three years ago, the BBC reported on a hand-held brain scanner being used in India to detect hematomas near the skull.
Scanners are generally becoming much more sophisticated, as is our ability to read the results. Scanners are letting scientists tease out spatial memories, for instance -- the internal processes deep inside the brain are becoming not only visible, but translateable.
In the case of the Navy they're looking for physical signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) -- which knocks many ex-soldiers out of life even if they seem to go out of the service OK.
But if you're looking at brain trauma near the surface, shouldn't you be able to see plaques that have formed on the brain in response to repeated injury? That's the NFL's problem.
They can create mechanisms for dealing with knock-out blows, but they can't yet detect, or mitigate, the hundreds of smaller blows that happen in practice and can add up to the same damage.
Within a few years, thanks to Navy research, pro scouts may be able to test college stars to see who already has severe brain injuries, or incipient injuries. This knowledge could also go into the development of new rules or new helmets that will filter-down from the pros to the amateur ranks, maybe even save the game.
Such technology may be our only hope, because even after a decade which began with stories like this, about the great Johnny Unitas (above), near the end of his life, unable to use his fabled right hand, football is still destroying men and football fans are still closing their eyes to it.
Football and war have a lot in common. The game originated in the late 1860s, among college students who had been too young to join the "fun" of the American Civil War. It retains its war-like analogies, and continues to cause war-like damage.
If we can make war a little safer, why not football?
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com