Fighting COVID-19: NFL Scores a Safety for Players

The NFL kicks off the 2020 season with COVID-19 protections in mind to protect players and team staff, using redesigned Oakley mouth shields for particulate blocking and Kinexon SafeTag devices for contact warning and contact tracing. 


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Image credit: Oakley

Football is a full-contact sport and players can’t help but breathe heavily in close proximity to each other. That poses potential problems for players during the pandemic because they can’t follow the CDC guidelines on the field. 

After searching for a way to protect players against COVID-19 transmission, the NFL rolled out its game plan prior to the start of the season: players are encouraged to wear mouth shields on the field, and contract tracing will be implemented when necessary. These new precautions are part of the NFL’s return-to-play plan that aims to keep all players and personnel safe and to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Created by Oakley, the NFL’s new mouth shields were designed by the company in collaboration with doctors and engineers to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on the field. The mouth shields add a layer of protection by blocking particle transmission between players. The shields are made from multiple layers of polycarbonate material. Each plastic layer has a different vent pattern to prevent the direct passage of particles, while still allowing for proper breathing. The mouth shield attaches to the inner lining of a player’s facemask on the helmet and extends across the entire lower half of the face. 


Oakley designed the mouth shields with input from NFL personnel to ensure practicality, safety, and comfort. Although they are not mandated for play, every NFL team will have mouth shields for players. 

The mouth shields also use Oakley Prizm Lens Technology, the same technology used for the NFL’s Oakley eye shields, or visors, which were adopted last year. Like the visors, the mouth shields have an anti-fog coating and comply with NFL tinting rules. The coating ensures clear visibility through both shields for safe play. The visors are especially useful this year as they add another layer of protection against COVID-19. The eye shields and mouth shields do not eliminate the possible exposure of COVID-19, but they greatly reduce particle transmission during play. 

Keeping Score of COVID-19 Exposures

The NFL hopes to sideline a virus outbreak through accurate contact tracing. All NFL players and personnel are required to wear Kinexon SafeTag devices at NFL facilities and during team-related travel. The lightweight proximity recording devices can be worn as a wristband or on a lanyard. They can also be built into equipment or uniforms for easy use during practice and gameplay.  

screen worn on wrist provides proximity information

Image credit: Kinexon

The SafeTag device measures the distance and the duration of contact between individuals using ultra-wideband (UWB) wireless technology. UWB technology is not interfered with by Bluetooth or other Wi-Fi networks, so the SafeTags can monitor distance accurately. If individuals do not maintain a safe distance, the devices will flash red. If the safe distance is breached for more than five seconds, the SafeTag emits an audible signal. 

Companies can modify the distance and time thresholds as necessary. For user protection, the SafeTag devices do not collect exact location or health information, and they use coded IDs to relay data to Kinexon’s partner cloud, AWS, or other external clouds via UWB. 

Blocking and Tackling with Data Science

The NFL’s SafeTag devices relay data to IQVIA, a third-party human data science company responsible for monitoring NFL players’ injuries, health, and safety. If a player presents symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19, IQVIA can use the SafeTag data to immediately determine other individuals who may have been exposed. IQVIA will also notify players and teams of a suspected COVID-19 case, so proper testing and isolation protocols can be implemented. This ensures COVID-19 cases are caught early to help prevent an outbreak. 

IQVIA used SafeTag device data to track player interactions on the Tennessee Titans after a small COVID-19 outbreak occurred. This data will help the NFL to minimize additional cases by isolating those who came in contact with someone who tested positive. It is unclear whether the Titans players were wearing mouth shields at the time. 

Proper safety protocols are necessary for a safe return-to-play plan. Let’s hope the NFL and the players don’t drop the ball. 

  • Learn more about the digital technology in Kinexon SafeTags.
  • See how IQVIA blends technology, data science, and human science.