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.
Chuck Salter is an award-winning senior writer at Fast Company. His work has also appeared on This American Life and in The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times.