This year the Fighting Irish and three other Division One football programs participated in a concussion research study. 22 Irish players wore accelerometer- and gyroscope-equipped mouthguards that recorded the forces that football collisions exerted on the players' brains.
If this subject doesn't interest you as an Irish fan, it should. Both Dave Duerson's tragic death and Corwin Brown's recent standoff with police and subsequent domestic abuse arrest are thought to be related to concussion-induced mental illnesses like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or "punch drunk syndrome."
Christoph Mack, president and CEO of the smart mouthguard designer X2Impact, says that the mouthguards' wireless transmitters confirmed for sideline analysts that the forces exerted on players' bodies by blocking and tackling are powerful indeed (from Blue and Gold Illustrated):
[A]verage collisions measured about 15-20 G's of acceleration, but major hits went as high as 100 G's. To put that in perspective, one G is the normal pull of the Earth's gravity on your body. When you accelerate rapidly the apparent force of gravity gets stronger. A jolting change of speed on a rollercoaster is about 5 G's, and a sharp turn in a fighter jet registers somewhere between 10-12 G's. A football player's brain accelerates as much as 10 times faster than that in the instant he makes contact with a menacing, oncoming linebacker. No wonder they see stars.
"Thankfully they last for just a few milliseconds at the acceleration level because if you tried to sustain 100 times your body's weight for any amount of time you would just crush it to jelly," Mack said.
The Irish medical staff is not yet using the mouthguard-generated force data to make medical or clinical diagnoses. The mouthguard study's current mandate is to collect data from unusually large hits. But Notre Dame Head Football Athletic Trainer Rob Hunt says that there is no clear correlation between the concussions and G-force (from South Bend Tribune):
"It's just another piece for us to give us some information to potentially screen concussive-type blows," said Hunt, a 1997 Ball State grad who is in his first season with the Irish. "Unfortunately, the data doesn't correlate to, 'When you get hit this hard, you're going to have a concussion.' There's no clear information that says, 'Every time someone gets hit at 50g's, we have to stop them from playing.'
"It's just not true. There are people who take blows over 100g's and have no concussive symptoms. That makes (evaluation) a little bit challenging."
While it is tragic that so many had to endure so much suffering before serious efforts at studying the physiological effects of football-related impacts and their resulting concussions, it is encouraging that Notre Dame and other universities are spending time and money to study sports concussions. Given what we now know about the frequency and severity of football-related collisions, however, I pose the question: would we want to subject our own sons to 5, 15, or 25 years of such punishment in playing high school, college, and/or pro football? And if we answer "no," then why do we allow ourselves to enjoy watching other people's sons do it? I don't know. I saw my own grandfather suffer the effects of dementia in his later years, and I'll never know how much of that was caused by his years playing football and baseball. But I do know that I'll be watching the Irish this fall and for every fall for the foreseeable future. I also know that I'll want my son to enjoy boxing and playing football as I did. You can't get a concussion sitting on your couch, but you also can't have much fun that way, either.