Imagine going to see a doctor for what could be a potentially serious medical situation. But instead of taking you to a private area for the examination, the doctor sets up a table in the middle of the waiting room and proceeds to poke and prod you in full view of a bunch of strangers. Feel uncomfortable yet?
Now increase the number of onlookers to 80, 000 or more, then throw in a nationally televised audience. This is the situation many college football players have faced over the years whenever they were injured during a game. They are plopped on a table along the sidelines, sometimes writhing in pain from torn ligaments or broken bones, as cameras circle nearby and tens of thousands of spectators watch from the stands.
During his 25 years in the business, Jeff Allen, head athletic trainer for the University of Alabama, has long bemoaned the lack of basic privacy for injured players. But it wasn’t until 2015 that he did something about it, coming up with a product that is simple yet ingenious.
With the help of the University of Alabama College of Engineering, Allen developed the SidelinER, which is basically nothing more than a tent. But this is a true pop-up tent, designed to be both raised and lowered in 5 seconds, allowing for the quick creation of a private exam space on the sidelines. The collapsibility is important, since the sidelines at major football games are crowded and a permanent tent would take up too much room.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I ask myself why I didn’t think of it 20 years ago. Because it’s not like I didn’t recognize the problem, ” Allen says. “Necessity is the mother of invention. I knew we had an issue and that there had to be a better way to do it.”
While Allen was tinkering with the idea of a collapsible medical tent for sideline use, Charles Karr, dean of UA’s engineering program, approached him, asking whether Allen had any projects Karr’s students could work on. Allen sketched out a rudimentary drawing of his concept on a whiteboard in Karr’s office, and Karr assigned it as a senior design project.
Within six weeks, the students had developed a prototype using PVC pipe and a bed sheet. The key is a circular hub in the center of the tent’s base, which is the only part of the product that has been patented. This hub allows the tent to easily spring open like an accordion — with a trainer’s table already connected to the inside of the frame — and then fold back over to form a secure covering that zips closed.
As soon as Allen saw the prototype, he enthusiastically told Karr, “This thing is going to work. You need to build it.” So they did, and the SidelinER made its debut at Alabama’s first home football game of the 2015 season. It didn’t take long for Allen and the Crimson Tide medical staff to realize just how much the product improved the in-game evaluation of an injured player.
“We’ve created a private environment in an area that has zero privacy, ” Allen says. “When we go in there, everybody is calmer. I’m calmer, the physician is calmer, the athlete is calmer. There’s not a hundred people coming up to us. So we can get a much more thorough, in-depth, accurate medical evaluation. This thing is a game-changer when it comes to increasing the level of care you’re able to give an athlete on the sidelines.”
ABOVE Head athletic trainer Jeff Allen (center) with his partners in Kinematic Sports, Patrick Powell (left) and Jared Cassity, who perfected the health tent for an engineering class assignment.
Dr. Norman Waldrop III, one of the Crimson Tide’s team physicians for the past five years, agrees. Like Allen, Waldrop says he was always uncomfortable with the way injured players had to be treated so publically during games, especially the television coverage.
“With the advent of overhead cameras, we started having a pretty significant issue of the cameras coming over us and basically watching us do the exam, ” says Waldrop, a surgeon with the Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham. “They’ll get the cameras in there pretty close. That makes it hard on us to do our job, and it will often bother the athlete.”
Keeping the athlete calm is important, Waldrop says, to obtain a quality diagnosis. That can be difficult enough to do in a private setting if the player is seriously injured and in significant pain. Combine that with loud noise and prying eyes, and it can be nearly impossible for the athlete to settle down.
“When an injured athlete comes off the field, their adrenaline is going and they’re in a hyped-up state, ” Waldrop says. “You’re trying to calm them down and examine them, but that can be hard to do out in the open. So instead of taking an athlete all the way to the locker room, which is really inconvenient in a lot of stadiums, the tent allows us to get the athlete calm so they focus on us and give specific answers and let us get a good exam.
“When you’re in it you feel like you’re in a cocoon, and you can really drown out a lot of the noise that’s going on outside. It makes a big difference in our initial exam, because in a lot of cases when guys get hurt, that first five minutes is critical. This allows us to quickly get an idea of the seriousness of the injury and what we need to do next, which is invaluable.”
As the Crimson Tide rolled toward a national championship in 2015, the SidelinER began drawing an increasing amount of attention. During the ensuing offseason, Allen says he received “an unbelievable number” of calls and emails from athletic trainers and doctors throughout the country, wanting to know more about the tent and how they could get one.
So, to start officially producing and selling the product, Allen formed the company Kinematic Sports along with two of the engineering students who worked on the initial prototype, 2015 graduates Jared Cassity and Patrick Powell. The University of Alabama owns the intellectual property to the SidelinER, and Kinematic Sports bought the licensing rights from the university.
The tents cost $5, 000 each. Allen says the company sold approximately 70 units last year, and expects that number to increase this year. One of the unforeseen selling points, he says, is the ability for schools and other organizations to offset the initial cost by placing advertising logos on the side of the tent.
“I didn’t even contemplate the marketing power of this in terms of logos on the side of it. That’s an element I didn’t even think about, ” Allen says. “So it’s a combination of privacy for the athletes and improved medical evaluation, and then the marketing part of it. It’s like having a billboard on the sideline.
“I have told groups that this is an opportunity for them to do something positive for their team and the athletes, and at the same time get some marketing for their company. So this thing has a lot of value in it.”
Cary Estes is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Birmingham.