NFL turns to Amazon for help addressing player injuries

The partnership aims to develop new tools and generate deeper insights into concussions and other player injuries.

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After signing a pact with the Seattle Seahawks last week, Amazon Web Service announced a much larger deal with the NFL to use its technology to address concussions and other devastating injuries. 

AWS will provide artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to the NFL with the hope that eventually, the league will be able to predict the risk of player injuries, it announced on Thursday. 

Amazon Rekognition, Amazon ML Solutions Lab and Amazon SageMaker will be used by the NFL's data scientists, developers and doctors to develop a platform called "Digital Athlete."

With "Digital Athlete," the league can create a simulated model of an NFL player and run it through an endless number of game scenarios to gain a better understanding of what situations lead to injury. 

The league's doctors will also use other data like equipment choice, playing surface, play type, environmental factors, aggregated and anonymized player injury information and player position to better understand how to treat or rehabilitate injuries. 

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"The NFL is committed to reimagining the future of football," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. 

"When we apply next-generation technology to advance player health and safety, everyone wins–from players to clubs to fans. The outcomes of our collaboration with AWS–and what we will learn about the human body and how injuries happen–could reach far beyond football. As we look ahead to our next 100 seasons, we're proud to partner with AWS in that endeavor," Goodell added.

More than most sports leagues, the NFL is plagued by devastating injuries to star players almost every year. ESPN ran a report earlier this week highlighting the New York Jets, which have a league-leading $61.5 million in salaries dedicated to players that are out for the rest of the season. That is a third of the team's entire salary-cap space, handicapping its ability to find replacements and stay competitive.

The NFL has also faced decades of scrutiny for its healthcare policies for active and retired players.

This season, the league has dealt with criticism for continuing to allow team-employed doctors to make potentially life-altering decisions about players in the heat of the moment, when most players are more likely to ignore future health implications just to stay in the game.

The same New York Jets team that has been plagued by high-priced injuries created a firestorm in October when team officials tried to force Pro Bowl guard Kelechi Osemele to skip surgery for a damaged shoulder and to continue playing through it. He refused and had the surgery anyway and doctors said the damage to the shoulder was greater than they anticipated.

After Osemele had surgery, the team fined and fired him. In multiple statements, team representatives said they believed Osemele should have ignored the pain and played with the injury, astounding players across the league. Osemele eventually filed an injury grievance against the team that is still pending. 

In a livestream press conference, Goodell said part of the league's goal in using Amazon's suite of tools was to not only predict injuries but also figure out the best practices for rehabilitation and recovery.  

According to the statement from the league, it will also be using computer vision models through Amazon SageMaker, Amazon SageMaker Ground Truth, and Amazon Rekognition to detect concussions and identify the situations that generally cause them.

Concussions are one of the sport's most pervasive problems and have lead to tangible declines in youth interest in football. 

In 2013, the NFL reached a settlement with 4,500 former players, agreeing to pay almost $1 billion to cover healthcare costs related to concussions and head injuries after spending years denying that they caused long-term brain damage.

Andy Jassy, CEO of AWS, said in a statement that Amazon's tools could help a new generation of NFL players avoid some of the injuries that have left players with life-long pain.

"By leveraging the breadth and depth of AWS services, the NFL is growing its leadership position in driving innovation and improvements in health and player safety, which is good news not only for NFL players, but also for athletes everywhere," Jassy said. 

"This partnership represents an opportunity for the NFL and AWS to develop new approaches and advanced tools to prevent injury, both in and potentially beyond football."

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Image: CBS