Unequal Technologies is tackling concussions and changing the face of sports injuries
by Ben Boskovich
During the 2010-11 football season, Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker James Harrison racked up more than $120,000 in fines, for what the NFL considered illegal hits on members of the Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints, Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins, and Buffalo Bills. What followed was a media frenzy that surrounded the issue of safety in sports, resulting in amendments to the league’s rules and stricter enforcement by in-game officials in order to promote player safety.
In the opinion of many players, including an outspoken Harrison, the league had been attempting to change a game that they had learned to play a certain way since they were children. What it seems was needed was a way for NFL Players to continue to play the game they knew and loved without consciously slowing down, an act that Harrison said only increased the risk of injury. “Any time you don’t play at full speed, and you’re holding back, you are taking a chance at getting yourself hurt,” he told WHIRL’s Managing Editor Katie Green in an interview last year.
Though Harrison may not have known it, just about a month after he delivered bone rattling hits on Browns players Josh Cribbs and Mohammed Massaquoi, a possible solution to those safety concerns was being introduced across the state in Philadelphia.
In November 2010, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick leaves the pocket and takes off running, as he often does, and just before he reaches the end zone, two Washington Redskins defensemen simultaneously hit him on either side of his shoulders, bringing him down just short of a touchdown. The play leaves Vick with injuries to his ribs and sternum, sidelining him for the rest of the game to watch his team lose to the Redskins, 17-12.
At the same time that month, Rob Vito, CEO of Unequal Technologies, is working on a military project to develop a new “super fabric” technology that is two millimeters thick and would have the ability to stop bullets and knives — a real-life Batman suit. “We got a call from the Eagles, and they said, ‘Could you take some of this Unequal military grade composite that we’ve heard about and put it into his chest protector?’” Vito says. Upon Vick’s return from injury, he and the Eagles put up 59 points against the very team that sidelined him just six weeks earlier. After the game, Vick told reporters about the chest protector he’d worn during the game in which he took eight hits to the chest. He said that Unequal made him feel invincible.
Later that winter, Vick signed an endorsement deal with Unequal, his first since returning to the NFL from prison, telling the Associated Press, “The Unequal technology is a part of my game now, and I won’t play without my Unequal,” he said. “Unequal’s protective power gives me a whole new level of confidence in my game.”
Since, Unequal’s presence has exploded throughout the NFL, and the company’s products include Exo Skeleton clothing, insoles, footwear, pads, and even golf grips, all of which are equipped with Unequal’s patented shock absorbing technology.
Maybe most impressive of all, though, are the supplemental pads called Concussion Reduction Technology, or CRT. Whether it’s Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison dishing them out, or Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby receiving them, concussions have come to the forefront of sports injuries. They’ve become a widespread topic of debate and continue to raise interest in league safety across all professional sports leagues.
What Unequal has developed to help curb the possibility of a head injury and its severity could very well change that conversation. The CRT material is a composite made from the No. 1 shock suppression material in the world called Kevlar, which is embedded into Unequal Technology’s patented composite. CRT helps reduce the Severity Index (SI) used to measure the risk of injury inside a helmet by as much as 50 percent and reduces the G-Force by up to 25 percent. Imagine if you could reduce the speed of a car crash by 50 percent. Take a 60 mile per hour head-on collision and instantly reduce the speed of the cars to 30 miles per hour. It would be significant.
Why and how does it work? Vito compares the composite’s strength as compared to other technologies as the difference between breaking a stick over your knee, and trying to break 10 sticks over your knee. Composites are engineered to be stronger and more advanced than single plies. The biggest difference over typical foam are the processes used with CRT — hysterical damping, lateral force dispersion, and mechanical radiation damping — which help disperse, disrupt, and distribute blunt force trauma and impact.
In traditional sports padding, which Vito compares to the cushions in a couch, shock is absorbed wholly, with force going straight through to the point where two sides touch and there’s really nothing to block the energy, so it goes through to the body after contact is made. But Unequal’s CRT dissipates that energy across the entire sheet of material. “When you look at a hurricane, it loses its force when it hits land,” Vito says. “Energy does not like to transfer mediums. In an FM Radio analogy [with CRT], first, the energy wave hits the blast shield and changes its frequency to 107.3, for example, to get through it. Then it goes down to 94.2 to get through the Kevlar, and then, it’s got to get up to 99.2 to get through [the elastomer]. This results in much of the energy being dispersed, disrupted, and distributed, which results in less impact.”
By the time energy transfers through all of these frequencies to get through the multiple layers, it’s worn down and confused in a sense. The end result is that as much as 50 percent of the force is absorbed/dispersed, whereas with typical “couch cushion” padding, only about 15 to 20 percent is absorbed.
Jon French, a neuropsychologist at UPMC Sports Medicine, says that because of an increase in media hype about concussions, more people have come forward saying that they have a problem, and concussion awareness has risen, making both him and his colleagues better at identifying and treating them. French says a large challenge with concussions is that there is no one test to achieve a diagnosis, with many concussion-like symptoms also being associated with migraines, dehydration, and lack of sleep, among other things.
Unfortunately, French says that there will never be a point where concussions can be completely prevented because of what actually happens to cause the injury. “A concussion is when you have a force that causes the brain to move inside the skull,” he says. “The movement causes the cells inside the brain to stretch out, and so, they don’t work quite as well.”
French says that because of this, no helmet will ever be able to guarantee concussion prevention, because in theory, you’d need something to stop the brain from moving. “If we could put a helmet around the brain rather than around the head, we might be able to [prevent concussions],” he says. “Technology is improving.”
Vick isn’t the only NFL player to equip himself with Unequal. Last season, a cracked orbital bone may have left Steelers linebacker James Harrison out indefinitely. He installed CRT in his helmet, and returned to sack Raven’s QB Joe Flacco three times. Harrison called Vito the next day and told him that for the first time, he hadn’t had ringing in his ears, a shooting pain across his head, and stars in front of his eyes. Steelers defensemen Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, and Ike Taylor, among others, were also fitted with CRT in their helmets after experiencing concussion-like symptoms, and returned to the field without any more missed games due to reported head injuries.
Steelers Quarterback Charlie Batch says that after seeing Harrison’s success with Unequal, the products took off in the Steelers’ locker room, and that he himself uses CRT in his helmet, as well as the rib cage protector that Vick wore, and the insoles. “You can see it being standard,” Batch says.
Vito estimates that about 50 percent of all current NFL teams are equipped with one of Unequal’s products, and he says to this day, he is not aware of one player that has sustained a concussion while wearing CRT. Vito says that he is currently in talks with several leagues to make Unequal’s technology standard, and that the NFL Players Association invited him to be present at the March 2012 Conference because they want all of their players to know about Unequal.
This change in concussion technology goes beyond professional sports, though. Because Unequal’s CRT is completely customizable and relatively affordable, athletes at all ages can supplement CRT into their equipment, and experience its incredible benefits with the first hit they ever take.
This is one of the things that motivates Vito in his mission to protect athletes everywhere. Vito saw a story about a New Jersey dad named Tom Adams on CNN. Adams dropped his 16-year-old son off to play high school baseball, where his son was the catcher. The teen was hit in the chest with a baseball and died, and his father was quoted as saying, “No one should die playing catch.” When Vito saw this, he said to his engineers, “If this boy had what we made for Mike Vick’s chest, he’d be going to the prom instead of the morgue.”
“Safety is very important for the younger athletes,” French says. “We know that kids tend to take a little bit longer to recover than your professional athletes do. It’s very important that at a young age, you’re teaching safety as far as head safety and identifying symptoms and not having them play through those symptoms. If you do that, you can reduce the risk of any sort of major problems down the road.”
Batch also says he hopes that because of the customizability of CRT, its popularity will extend beyond professional sports. “Hopefully, it trickles down to the youth,” he says. “Concussions are certainly a point of emphasis right now. You have parents that are worried about head trauma at that level. Try it out because it’s something that’s going to lessen the impact and the blow to the brain.”
French says that everyone wants to know the magic number of concussions that can end a career, but that number doesn’t exist, and that concussions are very individualized.
“What makes all the personal sacrifices and hours I work worth it is when I get the emails from the moms and dads that say their son is no longer throwing up after the game, or their daughter isn’t asking for aspirin, and they’re able to sit at a restaurant table and talk about that Friday night game without getting sick,” Vito says. “With scholarships, endorsements, and championships, it’s never just a game.”
Part of Vito’s mission is to change what has been the standard of athletic protection over the course of a few decades. He jokingly references Nike’s slogan, “Just Do It,” saying that his job now is to “Undo It.” “We go into locker rooms and have to undo years of sports advertisements and re-educate athletes on protection. Unfortunately, there is no performance standard for most protection, so it keeps getting thinner and lighter, which increases the propensity to be injured. So, when an athlete gets hurt, they should first blame their equipment. Our goal is to help eradicate injuries in sports though better protection and education. Sadly, 3.8 million concussions were reported last year, and I believe a lot of them may have been preventable. A parent, coach, and trainer has a duty of care to keep our athletes safe. Proper training and equipment could help reduce the number of injuries and their severity.”
Dr. Patrick DeMeo, League Physician for MLB, PGA, and the Doctor to one the NHL’s leading stars, said this after reviewing Unequal’s helmet impact testing data: “Although the total elimination of concussions in sports may not be achievable, the reduction of impact forces certainly cannot only be a benefit in conceivably reducing their numbers, but quite possibly and probably more important, by reducing their severity. The long-term consequences may be difficult to measure, but certainly would have long standing repercussions on these individual athlete’s lives.”
Vito knows that because of the science of a concussion, the injury will never really be completely preventable, but he doesn’t think that’s any reason not to supplement your helmet protection with CRT to reduce the risks as much as possible. If we could reduce up to 50 percent of the force going into the head, then it’s worth it,” he says.
Either way, it seems that Unequal has already been highly successful on many levels of athletic competition, and its success brings up a lot of interesting questions that are yet to be seen. With Vick using the word “invincible” and Harrison claiming to feel nothing while wearing Unequal, is the game of football about to become more high paced? More dangerous? “A reported accused me of weaponizing players,” Vito says. “Absolutely not; rather, I’m protecting players for the new 21st century athlete that is bigger, better, faster, and stronger.”
This article is featured in the September 2012 issue of WHIRL Magazine.
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