It was last October, and the two were in Columbus, Ohio. Immelt had invited Goodell to join him on some GE client visits. The two men have known each other for years, and football is a frequent topic of conversation. "He loves the game like nobody else I know," Goodell says of Immelt, a former offensive lineman at Dartmouth. But in Ohio, their talk turned to the NFL’s problems.
How could it not? The ongoing controversy over football-related concussions and subsequent brain damage threatens to undermine the league’s extraordinary success. The NFL generates the most revenue of any sports league—$9 billion in 2012. TV ratings are at an all-time high. And as we described in naming the NFL to Fast Company’s 2012 Most Innovative Companies list, it has turned a sport with a six-month season and the fewest games into a year-round obsession—and money machine.
But in recent years, former players have disclosed degenerative brain damage and disabilities they attribute to repeated head trauma from playing football. A handful committed suicide, ostensibly because of these injuries. Last summer, more than 3,000 former players sued the league, charging it should have done more to protect them.
So, not surprisingly, Goodell told Immelt, "Player health and safety is our No. 1 challenge."
Flash forward five months to yesterday’s standing-room-only press conference room atop Rockefeller Center. Immelt and Goodell were together again, this time to announce an unusual collaboration: one of the largest companies on the planet and the most lucrative sports league committing $60 million over four years to accelerate brain research, diagnosis, and treatment. Their "Head Health Initiative" is assembling top military and academic experts to oversee studies on brain trauma, and is reaching out to entrepreneurs to submit new approaches to prevent injuries.
"We’ve never done anything like this," Immelt told Fast Company in a joint interview with Goodell after the press conference.
"We’ve never had a partnership," Goodell said of the NFL, "that took a large issue in society and said we need faster advancement."
GE and the NFL need each other for different reasons. So far, the NFL has responded to its concussion conundrum by donating $30 million to the National Institutes of Health to fund research into head trauma; cracking down on vicious head-first hits with fines and rule changes; and conducting brain exams of players before the season. That establishes a baseline to better identify the subtle signs of concussion.
But Goodell hopes to speed things along by tapping GE’s prowess at fostering cutting-edge technology to solve complex problems. "I must get several proposals a day: ‘We have a solution,’ ‘We have the next best material,’ ‘We’ve got the helmet,’" Goodell said. "We don’t have a disciplined system to evaluate and learn from each of those, because it’s usually not one or the other. Maybe it’s the combination. That’s the challenge of innovation."
As for GE, it could use the NFL’s stature to make brain advancements a public priority. "With a lot of research, you really want a catalyst so other people will join in," said Immelt. "Very few institutions have the convening power that the NFL does."
"I like that—‘convening power,’" said Goodell, who was just ranked the most powerful person in sports in Sports Illustrated. "I’m writing that down." (Which he actually did, scribbling the phrase on a notepad at the conference room table.)
For Immelt, the initiative is about far more than saving the game of football. He sees a business opportunity. The brain, he says, "has been understudied. If you start with the premise that a lot of health care technology started with cancer and went to heart disease, all the neurological stuff has been late to the big R&D dollars." With the aging Baby Boomers, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other brain diseases are going to become more prevalent, creating a significant market for new diagnostic tools and therapies. The NFL’s head trauma problem could very well have a far-reaching impact on a variety of brain diseases. Even before Immelt and Goodell joined forces, GE was already ramping up for a major push into brain research and technology starting in 2014.
As part of the GE-NFL initiative, researchers from academia, GE, and the military will oversee studies to identify magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) biomarkers that illustrate the type and severity of brain trauma. Two innovation challenges are aimed at attracting outside researchers, technologists, and entrepreneurs with awards up to $10 million. The site NFL GE Head Health Challenge, which went live yesterday, is accepting proposals for new diagnostic and treatment methods of mild traumatic brain injuries.
In the fall, a second challenge, co-funded by Under Armour, focuses on equipment, materials, and technologies that prevent head injuries, not just in football but other activities, from soccer to cycling. There are an estimated 1.7 million traumatic brain injuries in the U.S. each year.
As for the NFL, the impact of the initiative remains to be seen, both in terms of improving its public image around head injuries and making a violent game safer yet no less popular.
Is Goodell at all afraid that better detection could reveal even more concussions in NFL games and force more players to the sidelines?
"As someone running an organization, you want facts," he said. "If you don’t have information you can’t make good decisions. Do we have to change the rules? Do we have to change equipment? Do we have to change the roster size? We need the information."
Neither Immelt nor Goodell suffered a concussion while playing football. As far as they know. Goodell’s one concussion came in baseball. "On a slide into second I got a knee in the side of my head," he said.
He was back playing the next day. "It wasn’t looked at as a serious injury, but that’s obviously changing with all the awareness now," Goodell said. "That’s a good thing."
[Football Player: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]