Football by nature is a physically demanding and dangerous sport. In recent years, the National Football League (“NFL”) has come under significant public scrutiny with regard to player safety, or lack thereof, in particular concussions and head injuries. According the NFL’s published injury data, there were 291 incidences of concussion to players in the 2017 season alone . The high incidence of concussions is not just a recent phenomenon. The NFL settled an almost $600 million class action lawsuit with over 20,000 former players who suffered concussions – many of whom have developed neurological disorders related to repeated brain injuries . This is an issue the NFL must deal with swiftly and appropriately to maintain the long term viability of its business.
The NFL has responded to the concerns of the public and of its players by changing rules related to hitting an opponent in the head and funding concussion research programs. The rule changes are designed in hope of more immediate improvement in safety while the research should provide more long term solutions. As part of its “Play Smart. Play Safe” initiative, the NFL has partnered with Duke University’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute to create the HeadHealthTECH Challenges. These challenges are designed to crowdsource innovation and design for the next generation of protective football equipment. To date, the HeadHealthTECH Challenges have awarded over $1.3 million to 11 entrepreneurs and organizations for their development of for safety products ranging from energy absorbing modules to helmet liners to faceguard technology . Before the challenges, helmet technologies in the market had only incrementally improved over the past few decades, and there lacked sufficient capital to fund new ventures to explore substantial improvements. Many of these products and technologies developed through the grants provided through the HeadHealthTECH Challenges would not have been researched without these financial incentives.
The HeadHealthTECH Challenges are important to the NFL because the NFL has a duty to ensure that it is doing everything it can to keep its players safe and without adverse long term health effects. In addition, the NFL concussion settlement and potential future lawsuits as well as the negative media coverage threatened to significantly adversely impact the business. However, the NFL does not have the expertise or research capabilities to begin developing its own helmets. There would be a lot of complexity around hiring researchers, implementing a manufacturing production, and creating a supply chain that is completely out of the scope of the NFL’s normal business. Alternatively, it could pick a specific partner to develop new technology; the problem is that the current manufacturers of helmets have been resistant to change to not disrupt the market . Both options would have also potentially created a conflict of interest from profiting off its own players’ safety equipment. By crowdsourcing ideas for protective equipment, there is increased competition among many disparate innovators coming up with solutions independently of one another, enabling the NFL to spur the expert research and development it needed to help address its safety issues without conflicts.
In order to further address the NFL’s concussion issues, there are a few additional steps it can take: get more direct involvement from players, crowdsource improvements to the rules, and improve communication with public. First, the NFL has to get the buy in of the players and the players’ union to test out and implement these new technologies. Without the players testing the equipment and giving their feedback, the research and development process will not be as thorough. Worse yet, the research could be all for naught if the players do not understand the risks and benefits fully and choose not to embrace the new technology. Additionally, it is inevitable that the rules of football need to be adjusted to keep the players safe, but the NFL has thus far only looked internally to generate the rules that would best address this. Similarly to its approach to improving equipment, the NFL can reach out to fans, coaches, players, and other experts on potential improvements to the game. Finally, the public needs to have better information on the development and progress of the technology. The negative publicity and lack of communication makes it appear as though the safety concerns are going unheard or that the NFL is making no progress in improving these issues. The NFL would build back a lot of its credibility if it owned up to its past mistakes and became a champion for safety and brain health going forward.
After thinking about the issue of player safety and how the NFL is addressing it, one question I still have is: should the NFL also be seeking to collaborate with other sports and/or recreational activity organizations to improve helmet technology or should they continue to focus on just the specific football use case?