When standing still, the Mobile Virtual Player looks a little like a punching bag atop a Roomba — only more imposing. Covered with black padding, it’s almost 6 feet tall and weighs 185 pounds. When put into motion via remote control, the robotic dummy can move across the football field at nearly 20 miles per hour; “run” a 40-yard dash in about 5 seconds; and spin, turn around and stop on a dime.
Designed to be hit and pummeled, it’s the only motorized tackling dummy of its kind. Its inventors — along with a lot of coaches and supporters — are hoping the technology will be a significant step in making football safer.
“I think you need to see it and be up near it on the field to get an appreciation for what it can actually do,” says John Currier, CEO of MVP. “It’s heavy, it comes at you in a hurry. You can knock it over, nail it to the ground and it pops back up and it’s ready to go for the next drill.”
A group of Dartmouth engineering students started developing the MVP in 2013 at the suggestion of the school’s football coach, Buddy Teevens, who was looking for a way to cut down on injuries during practices. Teevens had already eliminated full-contact during practices, back in 2010, to cut back on practice injuries that were keeping his players out of games. (The move inspired the rest of the Ivy League to eliminate full-contact hitting in football practices last year.)
The idea behind the MVP was to have “all the motion and pursuit and unpredictability and the ability to tackle, without having it be our teammate,” says Currier. “To take one player, one helmet, one brain out of the collision. You can still practice footwork, positioning, and follow through on the tackle without the risk of banging your head on your teammate’s helmet.”
Last year, the company released a limited number of the robots, which several NFL teams bought and are using in practices. Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach, Mike Tomlin has called it an “awesome piece of football technology,” that “never gets tired,” with virtually endless applications, but the $8,000 price tag will likely be prohibitive at the high school level. (Florida’s St. Thomas Aquinas High School, which has the most alumni currently playing in the NFL of any high school in America, has one.)
High school, many argue, is where some of the greatest safety improvements are needed.
“The reality is, the NFL is a much safer place to play than high school,” says Chris Nowinski, co-founder and director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and author of Head Games: The Global Concussion Crisis. “If high schools adopted most of the NFL standards, they’d be better off,” he says. “But they can’t afford them.”
He says that with the combination of union-protected practice limitations in the NFL and medical professionals on the sidelines to diagnose concussions, “we can provide much more protection, care and education for the adults than we can for high school athletes.”
More than 1 million students are playing full-contact, collision high school football in this country, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, which, among other things, sets standards, recommendations and rules for competition.
Bob Colgate, the Director of Sports and Sports Medicine for NFHS, told me “the sport of football at the high school level is as safe as it has been since the first rules were written in 1932.”
States make their own rules, but, according to Colgate, every state has adopted limitations on the amount of full contact during practices and created protocols to remove athletes from a game when a concussion is suspected. What’s more, the NFHS offers a free online course, “Concussion for Students,” designed to help people identify symptoms and prevent concussions. “There is much left to do,” Colgate adds.
Love of the game has become increasingly at odds with the growing body of research showing the links between the blows to the head football players regularly sustain, and several degenerative brain diseases. Most recently, former Jets defensive Mark Gastineau revealed in a radio interview that he’s been diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Dozens of former players have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that, so far, can only be confirmed posthumously. Researchers at Boston University have identified CTE in the brain tissue of 90 out of 94 deceased former NFL players, according to the BU CTE Center.
The NFL settled a lawsuit with former players for nearly $1 billion, after the players accused the NFL of hiding the dangers of head trauma. Last year, for the first time, an NFL official admitted the link between CTE and the head trauma sustained in football.
“I believe you should make the head off-limits,” says neurosurgeon Robert Cantu, founder of the Cantu Concussion Center and co-founder of the CTE Center in Boston.
“The NFL has made it illegal to hit in the head somebody that can’t see the hit coming. But it bothers me that we don’t go that next logical step. Make it illegal to hit the head.” He adds that at the high school level, the sheer volume of hits — two to three times a week in practices, plus games and off-season camps—makes the sport potentially more dangerous than for the pros, who only hit 14 times during the 18-week season.
Cantu thinks the MVP robot is a good thing. “It allows people to do tackling, but it doesn’t hit you back in the head,” he says.
MVP’s CEO, Currier, says that the company is working to make the robots more affordable, and he said he’ s working with various investors (he wouldn’t say who) to make the robot “accessible to places that aren’t as resource-rich and get those out into the world of you football leagues and high school football leaves where there isn’t as much money.”
Nowinski, who played for Harvard as a defensive tackle and wrestled professionally before a serious concussion forced him into retirement, suggests the answer might be simpler: “Hit fewer times, don’t hit as hard, diagnose concussions faster, manage the concussions better.” A safety precaution supported by Nowinski—to eliminate the kickoff at the youth level—is about to be tested in a years-long pilot program announced this week by USA Football, the national organization that oversees amateur football regulations. “We should focus on whether it’s ever appropriate to hit a child in the head 500 times a year,” Nowsinki adds.
Cantu agrees. “It’s very important that kids under the age of 14 don’t play tackle football at all,” he says. “Because their brains are developing and circuitry is being wired, and their brains are not well-myelinated,” he says, referring to myelin, a fatty substance that wraps around nerve fibers and increases the speed of communication between neurons.
“Reluctantly, I say high school age (to start) if you’re going to play the sport,” says Cantu. “We kind of arbitrarily make it high school. But I guarantee that a 14-year-old brain is more vulnerable than an 18-year-old brain.”
While it’s too early for any statistics on injury reduction for teams that are using the MVP robot, Currier says, “On an intuitive level, if there’s damage being done when a player bangs his head on another player’s helmet,” swapping out one of those players for an MVP robot, “we take one player out of that equation and that in and of itself is an important, big first step.”
Currier is hopeful that looking to the future, the MVP might be able to collect data during practices, and gather information that will reduce injury. “I fully expect technology to play a leading role in making the game better,” he says.
“The robot may help, but you don’t need the robot,” Nowinski says. “The most important solutions in high school football are non-technological solutions. And they’re not discussed as much because they’re not as exciting and there’s just not profit to be made.”