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This Helmet Will Save Football. Actually, Probably Not.



PALO ALTO, Calif. — Walk between a colonnade of palm trees and push through a door at Stanford University and find a sorcerer’s apprentice lab where prospective Ph.D. sorts beaver away at bioengineering programs.

This is CamLab, where David Camarillo, a nationally respected bioengineer and former college football tight end, and his students are in pursuit of that American El Dorado: They seek a helmet that will make it safe to play tackle football.

Dr. Camarillo, 40, insisted they could soon crack the case.

He tapped at his keyboard and on the screen, watched a simulation of his new helmet shock absorber, and whispered: “This could reduce concussions by at least 75 percent. Theoretically, this is the holy grail.”

That might be an unintentionally apt metaphor. No one, after all, has found Jesus’ chalice. After years of research, only a few scientists believe they can still make such a helmet. Many who study this field say a more sophisticated helmet may even prove dangerous.

Their worry is based in fact. When a 310-pound man who runs a 40-yard dash in five seconds flat slams into a running back, that runner’s neck and head accelerate, and the brain and its fibers twist and stretch and tear. A particularly rough hit could jar open the blood-brain barrier, the semipermeable wall that prevents bacterial pathogens from entering the brain.

The danger isn’t limited to the largest and fastest people. In fact, smaller repeated hits — as opposed to spectacular collisions — are the real danger. Football, brain experts say, can represent imminent danger to the brain of a child, a teenager or an adult. No advance in helmet making, they say, is likely to materially change that.

Willy Moss, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, has worked with Dr. Goldstein and the Department of Defense, seeking to develop better helmets for players in contact sports and soldiers in war zones. He has also consulted with Dr. Camarillo.

He is open to a breakthrough in helmet technology, though a thin smile spoke to profound doubt.

“You can make whatever changes you want, but in the end it’s all physics,” he said. “Talking of new and better buffers is like Goldilocks and the three foams.”

Stefan Duma, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech, runs a respected helmet lab that evaluates and rates them, and he has tracked the breadth of the technological leap. More sophisticated helmets and foams have reduced the acceleration of the head by about 50 percent, and all of the companies, he said, are engaged in research to develop new technologies. But he is not convinced that great advances remain.

C.T.E. remains an ever-present danger no matter what a player wears on his head. “Not getting hit in the head at all is the best thing for you,” he said.

“The top five or six pro helmets are interchangeable, well designed and perform well,” he added. “But we have to be clear: This is about risk reduction.”

So the argument is joined, and there’s no doubting the stakes. The N.F.L. recognizes the threat to its future and has shoveled money into helmet and concussion research as fast as a stoker tosses coal into a furnace. It has spent $200 million, and counting, in the past decade, and the Department of Defense has poured in tens of millions of dollars of its own, hoping to find better protection for soldiers. In mid-November, the N.F.L. announced a $2 million grant competition to create a new “top performing helmet.”

Taken on its own, the $140 million football helmet business is dominated by a half-dozen companies and offers a poor profit center, as the market is small and heavily weighted down with insurance liability costs. Dr. Camarillo has applied for a piece of that N.F.L. bounty and has yet to receive money. He is principally underwritten by a grant from the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health.

Should Dr. Camarillo succeed in creating a radically safer helmet, he hopes his technology would apply to broader and more lucrative sports markets, cycling, lacrosse and hockey. The innovations also are of interest to car manufacturers.

“My goal is not to be a consultant to football,” he said. “Really traumatic brain injury is a much bigger issue.”

And he is convinced that a better helmet can help solve it.

Dr. Camarillo grew up in a seaside agricultural town across the Santa Cruz Mountains from Silicon Valley. He played linebacker and tight end in high school, but at Princeton, in the late 1990s, he concentrated on tight end. All the banging in linebackers practice proved brutal, and he developed fierce migraines. “I was in serious pain,” he said.

He loves the sport and grows poetic as he describes a team camaraderie that cut across race and class. He is loath to see that culture wither. With a background in biomechanics and biophysics, he worked in surgical robotics before launching his own lab at Stanford in 2012; he is focused on understanding and preventing traumatic brain injury. He has worked on developing safer football equipment with a biomechanical approach, using gyroscopes and measuring the rate of rotation of the head upon impact.

He works there with a neuroscientist and neuroradiologist, Dr. Michael Zeineh, and a pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Gerald Grant, who has devoted years of work to concussions.

“We have to know the mechanisms of injury, biologically, and what are the tolerance levels,” he said. “How much is too much?”

He developed a computerized mouth guard. It was hoped that mouth guards might lessen the impact of hits and lead to fewer concussions. That has not panned out, but the high-tech mouth guards have helped scientists chart the nature of damaging blows. “Every person reacts different to taking a traumatic physical hit,” he said.

Dr. Camarillo’s hope for the future of helmets, which other scientists at other institutions are pursuing as well, relies on two of the oldest earthly substances: water and oil. His team inserts one of these fluids into helmet columns and uses its nearly unmatched ability to absorb the massive energy load of a football hit, and thus reduce the effect of the hit on the head and brain.

Challenges remain, not the least of which is that water is heavy, even in small quantities; no player wants to carry a water bed on his head.

Dr. Camarillo said that his team seemed to have found a way to engineer around that challenge, that it could produce something no heavier than a bike helmet.

“It is predicting less than one concussion per football season for a team,” he said. “Maybe it’s too good to be true and maybe it is, but theoretically? It looks possible.”

His findings so far are drawn from computer simulations, and no matter how sophisticated they are, that’s not the same as a good field test.

In the battle over football and brain health, Dr. Camarillo portrays himself as occupying the sensible center, an agnostic caught between ravening ideologues. There are those who deny that football damages the brain, and, in his telling, there is the C.T.E., sky-is-falling camp, which sees no choice other than to end football.

“It has become so charged it’s almost political,” he said.

He raised a doubting eyebrow about aspects of the expansive C.T.E. research of those at Boston University and Carnegie Mellon. He argued those groundbreaking experiments — the ones that have shown that repeated and less powerful hits can produce C.T.E. in mice — were less conclusive than they appeared. “What is a concussion in a rodent?” he said. “Can we so clearly define it in a human? No.”

I spoke to a half-dozen neuroscientists from four universities, and all said that the science of using mice as analogues for humans is robust and that evidence that shows repeated hits damage the brain keeps accumulating.

I shared Dr. Camarillo’s views on the drawbacks of experimenting on mice with Dr. Goldstein of Boston University. He sighed and fell silent on the phone line before speaking.

“He can believe whatever he wants, but it’s a misinformed reading of the science,” he said. “We get identical neuropathology in our animal models that we have seen in humans.”

The two sides in this debate as often seem to speak different languages. The N.F.L. and the N.C.A.A. and Dr. Camarillo talk of an overarching goal: preventing concussions, which they regard as synonymous with the brain damage caused by football. Camarillo works independently for now of the helmet manufacturers, although he hopes that one day soon that might be different.

Researchers at Boston University and Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere focus on C.T.E. as the greatest threat and insist the culprit is not the concussion — as terrible as that injury can be. Rather, it’s thousands of cumulative hits over many years. So yes, taking a freight train hit from a pro linebacker is dangerous — but being repeatedly whacked and knocked to the ground thousands of times by players in Pop Warner, middle school and high school puts you at more risk for C.T.E.

The average college and professional player undergoes 700 to 1,000 hits each year, rattling and twisting and tearing at the brain inside the skull. “I can say with great certainty that there is no correlation between a single concussion and C.T.E.,” Dr. Goldstein said. “It’s the accumulation of hits.”

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Rochester collaborated on a recent study in which they put sensors in the helmets of 38 Division III college players and measured hits in practices and games. Only two players sustained concussions that season. But season-ending tests found evidence of structural damage and change in the brains of two-thirds of the players.

“It’s woven into every play,” said Bradford Mahon, a cognitive neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon.

His partner, Adnan Hirad of the University of Rochester, held out the possibility that a better helmet might help in the margins. But that’s it. “It’s a dangerous sport, and we can’t mince words about a technology. There’s no El Dorado.”

I asked Dr. Goldstein what sort of technological breakthrough would protect a player against C.T.E.? He peered at me. “A force field that keeps a player from blocking or tackling you,” he said.

He did not smile.

I mentioned to Dr. Camarillo this upwelling of skepticism. He nodded with the confidence of a true believer. He and several of these scientists know each other and plan to collaborate on research. If his proposed helmet reduces concussions, he said, logically it might reduce the force of subconcussive hits that cause long-term damage to the brain. In this way, he said, it’s analogous less to a cigarette filter than to technological changes that have made surviving car crashes progressively safer.

I mentioned that claim to Dr. Goldstein and his head started to wag. He insisted the evidence on C.T.E. and the toll taken by even small hits did not support Dr. Camarillo’s optimism. “This is hope-and-a-prayer science,” he said.

Evidence could take years, at the very least, to accumulate. For now, there is no way to diagnose C.T.E. in the living; it can be found only with an autopsy.

And yet Dr. Camarillo is not deterred. “I hope this is like the seatbelt,” he said of his new helmet design, with a jauntiness that would warm the heart of an N.F.L. executive. “And the day will come when you think it’s just crazy we didn’t have it sooner.”


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Antetokounmpo has Triple-Double as Bucks Down Bulls 111-98 – NBC Chicago




Giannis Antetokounmpo had a triple-double and scored his 10,000th career point as the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Chicago Bulls 111-98 on Monday to sweep the four-game season series.

Antetokounmpo had 28 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists for his fourth triple-double of the season. He reached 10,000 points on a jump hook with 4:30 remaining in the fourth.

Khris Middleton added 24 points for Milwaukee, which has won 10 consecutive games over the Bulls dating to the 2017-18 season. That’s the Bucks’ longest winning streak over Chicago since the teams began playing in 1968.

The Bucks have won seven straight and ran their league-best record to 39-6. Milwaukee shot 58 percent, with Middleton connecting on 10 of 13 shots.

Zach LaVine had 24 points for Chicago, which shot just 37 percent. Kris Dunn had 15 points and Thaddeus Young added 14 points off the bench. LaVine has scored at least 20 points in 11 consecutive games.

After a sloppy first half by both teams, the Bucks began to take control, opening the third quarter on a 13-4 run, sparked by Middleton’s eight points. Milwaukee’s lead grew to as many as 16 in the quarter before Chicago clawed back.

Milwaukee used a 14-0 run on it way to a 30-23 lead after the opening period.

The second quarter saw 10 lead changes with the Bucks leading 53-52 at halftime. Antetokounmpo had 12 points but was saddled with three fouls and had five turnovers.


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Nolan Arenado isn’t happy after Rockies GM says he won’t be traded this offseason




To hear Rockies GM Jeff Bridich tell it, it’s time to stop all the Nolan Arenado trade talk. 

Colorado’s star third baseman has been the subject of numerous trade rumors this offseason, which is a consequence of the big contract extension he signed last winter plus his vocal frustrations with the Rockies’ 91-loss campaign in 2019. The Cardinals, Rangers and Braves, among other teams, have been reported as having varying degrees of interest in Arenado. Now, though, it appears trade talks are off. Here’s what Bridich had to say on the matter Monday, per Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post: 

“With the season coming up and spring training on the horizon, we are going to start focusing on that. We have listened to teams regarding Nolan and really nothing has come of it. We are going to move forward pretty much as we expected — with Nolan in the purple and black and as our third baseman.

“So we can put this to bed and collectively look forward to the upcoming season and work toward that.”

Bridich acknowledges that trade discussions took place, but the Rockies apparently found those discussions wanting. As well, there’s the matter of Arenado’s full no-trade clause, which the team that agrees to a trade would need to persuade him to waive. While there’s nothing ruling out Arenado talks at some point in the reasonably distant future, the Rockies, according to Bridich, will open the 2020 season with Arenado at the hot corner and anchoring the middle of the lineup. 

For his part, Arenado sounds most displeased. Thomas Harding of got Arenado’s reaction to Bridich’s comments: 

“There’s a lot of disrespect from people there that I don’t want to be a part of,” Arenado said in a text. “You can quote that.”

In reaction to Bridich’s announcement, Arenado elaborated.

“You ask what I thought of Jeff’s quotes and I say I don’t care what people say around there,” Arenado said. “There is a lot of disrespect.”

Asked what was said that he found particularly disrespectful, Arenado said, “No. I won’t get into the details.”

At this point, it’s quite clear that Arenado wants out of Colorado, and after Bridich’s comments, he may be looking to force the issue. All of this means the Rockies may be pressured into accepting a less than ideal return just to get the disgruntled superstar out of town and get out from under his remaining salary commitments. 

Arenado’s relationship with the team seemed to degrade during the 2019 season, as the Rockies slipped to fourth place after making the postseason in 2017 and 2018. Arenado expressed his frustrations in September, and shortly thereafter Bridich made a puzzling public comment about Arenado’s discontent and his contract: 

The implication is that Bridich isn’t particularly worried about surrounding Arenado with a contention-worthy roster, which raises the question of why you invest so much in a performer like Arenado if you’re not going to try your best to win while he’s still in his prime. It’s also unusual for a GM to reveal details about negotiations in such a manner. In that context, Arenado’s frustration is understandable.

In any event, Arenado is going into his age-29 campaign in 2020. The Rockies lifer has a 122 OPS+ for his career and a mark of 130 over the past four seasons, all while being an elite defender at third and showing uncommon durability. Arenado has to his credit seven Gold Gloves in seven seasons and five straight top-10 finishes in the NL MVP balloting.

As for his aforementioned contract extension, he signed an eight-year, $260 million pact in February 2019, and he’s still owed $234 million over seven years. Arenado also has an opt-out after the 2021 season, which might explain why some teams were hesitant to trade for him. Arenado’s latest remarks, though, may make those interested teams see an opportunity to increase their leverage in trade talks, assuming Bridich — in spite of his Monday comments — is still open to having discussions. If nothing else, this situation is far from resolved despite the GM’s efforts to communicate closure and finality. 


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3 Horses Die in 3 Days at Santa Anita, Prompting Fresh Criticism of Racetrack




It was a grim trifecta and a familiar result for Santa Anita Park: Three horses died in three days this past weekend at California’s best known and most scrutinized racetrack.

All three horses were euthanized, two after breaking their ankles in turf races and the third after colliding with another horse while training on dirt, racing officials said.

The latest spate of fatalities at the track began on Friday, when a 6-year-old gelding named Harliss broke an ankle in a turf race and was euthanized, according to racing officials.

Then on Saturday, a 5-year-old gelding named Uncontainable also broke an ankle in a claiming race on turf and was euthanized. The third death came on Sunday when Tikkun Olam, a 4-year-old gelding who had won $40,743 in nine races, collided with another horse while training on dirt. The nature of the horse’s injuries was not immediately clear.

There have now been five deaths at Santa Anita since the start of this year, prompting the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to call on state racing officials to suspend racing at the Arcadia, Calif., track.

“Three dead horses in three days requires immediate action,” PETA said in a statement. “The California Horse Racing Board was recently given the authority, in legislation backed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, to suspend racing — and now it must do exactly that.”

The outcry followed the deaths of 56 horses at Santa Anita from July 1, 2018, to Nov. 30, 2019, according to a special investigation by a task force that was created last year by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

The inquiry found no evidence of criminal animal cruelty or unlawful conduct by the track’s owners, the Canada-based Stronach Group, which closed Santa Anita in March for several weeks while the track’s safety and other racing practices were evaluated. But that has not placated animal welfare activists.

“There is no sense in the board allowing racing — and deaths — to continue until it enacts all its own pending regulations and acts on the recommendations of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office,” PETA said. “If it takes the closure of a track to stop the deaths, then close the track.”

A spokesman for the California Horse Racing Board declined to comment about the latest track fatalities. Instead, he provided a list of proposed changes to safety regulations on the types of drugs given to horses, racing in inclement weather and the transparency of veterinary records.

Some of the recommendations have been adopted, but others still require either board or budgetary approval, according to a checklist from the governing body, which now posts a weekly list of racing fatalities in California on its website.

A spokesman for Mr. Newsom, Jesse Melgar, said in an email on Monday that the governor was troubled by the fatalities at the track over the weekend.

“While the California Horse Racing Board and Santa Anita have made progress in reducing equine fatalities over the past year and C.H.R.B. has made recommendations to further improve horse safety, Governor Newsom remains concerned and believes more must be done,” Mr. Melgar said. “Despite implementing new safety review standards — which are now proving to be a new national model — too many horses are getting injured or dying as we saw over the weekend.”

When reached for comment on Monday, a spokesman for Santa Anita Park said the management was crafting a statement.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Set against the San Gabriel Mountains, the racetrack, 15 miles northeast of Los Angeles, was the site of Seabiscuit’s 1940 victory in the Santa Anita Handicap. The 2003 movie “Seabiscuit” was filmed there.

In 2010, Santa Anita abandoned use of a synthetic track made of sand, rubber and silica after a short-lived experiment. In February, the management brought in a track safety expert from the University of Kentucky to search for clues regarding the rash of fatalities.

State racing officials say that Santa Anita installed new digital imaging equipment — a PET scan — to diagnose injuries to horses. The track also delayed the start of its current winter/spring meet to Dec. 28 from Dec. 26 because of concerns about inclement weather.


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