Open Innovation in the NFL: Player Safety

How the NFL is using Open Innovation to address concussions

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 [1]. 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 [2]. 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 [3]. 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 [4]. 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?

(798 words)







Open Innovation in the Investment Management Industry: Is This The New Frontier?


Machine Learning: Innovate Your Way to an Unproductive Majority

Student comments on Open Innovation in the NFL: Player Safety

  1. Football by design is a very violent sport. There will always be unavoidable head to head contact, making it imperative for the NFL to find a solution to the concussion issue. I agree that continuous improvements to rule changes will be critical to this effort; however, I think even more important is the improvement to equipment. Two numbers in your post really stuck out to me. $600 million and $1.3 million. The NFL has paid out a $600 million settlement to former victims, yet has only paid $1.3 million in awards for helmet innovations. Physical/mental health aside, that just seems like bad business. Without further improvements to equipment another lawsuit (and massive settlement) is inevitable for the NFL. With these risks looming, I think the NFL should spend a lot more than $1.3 million on equipment innovation to avoid these financial penalties. Maybe they would even want to do it for their players safety…..

  2. Concussions seems common for a physically contact sport as American football. One potential reason for the low awareness is that the impact of concussion usually arises long time after the player retired. Therefore, normal method of raising awareness of concussion among hot-blood young NFL player seems to be useless. I agree that NFL should be the governing body to take full responsibility in coping with this issue; not only apply strict football rules regarding concussion, but also promote high quality and standard for player’s equipment. The crowdsourcing idea on helmet development is a really nice way to kick this campaign off.

  3. I would focus on football safety only in the short-term, only because the game is unique in its potential for severity of impact.I worry that without an extremely narrow focus, the research and development time will take much longer than we would like to solve for this important issue. Alongside providing funding, the NFL should be open and receptive to helping entrepreneurs test out new helmet technology on the actual field, and share learnings with the entrepreneurial community. This can be particularly helpful to address shortcomings, and to ensure others can avoid common mistakes to get to faster development.

  4. It’s been very interesting to see how teams and organizations have responded to concussion and CTE issues surrounding football. Some colleges, including, Harvard and the entire ivy league, now prevent tackling during football practice to reduce the number of hits players are exposed to. It is disappointing to see that the NFL, who had revenues of $8B in 2017, has only put $1.3M towards the HeadHealthTECH challenges. It is also surprising to hear that helmet manufacturers are resistant to change and innovation. The concussion and CTE issues have been so prominent in the media, and is such a major concern for parents who have children playing football, that I would have expected these manufacturers to have placed significant investments in helmet safety product development. In my opinion, the NFL should be funneling more money to this issue, and investing in more partnerships to help solve it.

  5. Very interesting article, and I think this is a super important problem. The benefits of open innovation here are clear: crowdsourced ideas generate more variance (which is valuable as we’ve discussed in TOM) and come from people with an external perspective. Going forward, I wonder whether the NFL could continue to use this principle of open innovation to apply to other areas of player safety. For example, could the NFL crowd-source potential rules changes and the testing of those changes? Or could the NFL ask for high school and college teams to submit head impact data on all of their players to further study the effects of playing football on players before they even get to the pros?

  6. Great job taking on such a controversial topic! I had no idea that the NFL was doing any of this, which certainly speaks to your point about building credibility at the NFL by announcing such actions – although, as you point out, maybe they don’t because they don’t necessarily want to own up to the issue. It is a fascinating way to make sure that the best tech is actually produced for the players’ safety. However a cynical view would be to ask how the league selects the tech they are going to use, whether it be those with the best protection for the players, or if cost plays a major role in the decision-making process.

    To answer your question though, I don’t think it is the NFL’s responsibility to collaborate with other sports, but certainly sharing the tech and open source innovation with the NCAA and their college football athletes seems like an easy step, if they haven’t already done so.

  7. This reminds me of the Will Smith movie on Concussions and the research of Bennett Omalu on this disturbing trend in the NFL. It’s certainly an issue that warrants open innovation since it’s of critical importance to the future of the NFL. In terms of your question, there are only so many sports that are similarly violent with which the NFL could actually compare itself. They could partner with the NHL since there are some parallels there. Both sports are trying to eliminate hits to the head to protect the players. I think the biggest difference though with the NHL versus the NFL is that in football you have more frequent collisions and typically more dangerous ones as well. It’s such a hard issue because we are talking about something (hits) that is a huge driver of the popularity of these sports and the more you take that out of the game, the less the sport resembles what it once was which can cause bottom line ripple effects if fans aren’t enjoying the game as much. Having said all this, it doesn’t matter the effect on the bottom line because we are talking about player health and safety in the long term. Head injuries are terrible and the sports have a responsibility to protect the players which in turn protects the future of the sport.

  8. This is an important article given the recent findings about the prevalence of various types of brain injuries being suffered by football players at all levels of the game. I agree with Alex that upping the research funding from a measly $1.3mm is critical in the immediate run. I would even posit that the NFL should host a moonshot, i.e. offer a $50mm prize for the entity that discovers a helmet that reduces concussion rates by 50% or a treatment protocol that can halt or even reverse the effects of brain injuries. Without drastic action across all time horizons, the NFL is going to face an existential crisis as more and more parents prohibit children from playing the sport because of real health concerns.

  9. Great article, Billy. I knew the NFL had taken actions to address the increased public pressure surrounding this topic but had no idea they had started crowdsourcing to develop a player helmet solution. I think there is value in the NFL partnering with other sporting organizations whose players similarly face risks of concussions such as the NHL, MLL and potentially even rugby leagues around the world. This will allow these organizations to pool their resources and hopefully have them stretch the reach of the research/innovation further. The challenge in adding additional groups is it makes decision making difficult, but that might be a necessary cost to try and reach a solution.

  10. This is a really interesting initiative being led by the NFL, but I wonder how much this is a PR-seeking initiative vs. a genuine attempt at driving innovation. I believe that open innovation can be a great way to drive disruptive thinking, but I wonder whether this application makes sense, given that a efficacious solution requires such scientific backing. By funding this challenge, is the NFL incentivizing the right people? And for the ideas that are generated, how will the NFL take those and translate them into products or equipment that can be used in play? Again, I think it’s important that the NFL pay attention to this important issue, but wonder whether this is the best approach and what the program results will be in years to come.

  11. Appreciate you tackling a topical and controversial topic and, like several commenters above have mentioned, the $1.3M number is shockingly low given the overall impact of the issue at hand. Like Billy the Fourth, I do question whether the crowd-sourcing efforts are more about PR than genuinely trying to get to the best answer: it’s easy to say you’re looking for the best solution by going broad, but not actually do anything about it. I like some of the ideas you mentioned about committing to a real research partner to further the research. You bring up an interesting question on other sports – to the extent that studies have been done for other sports, even if nature is very different, I think this should certainly be leveraged as best it can.

    My last thought is that it’s important that the NFL gets valuable input from players in terms of rule changes (less so on technology of helmets). There are a lot of vocal voices in the news (i.e. quarterbacks vs. linebackers) and it’s important to make sure that all voices are being heard. I don’t think the NFL did a good job of collecting buy-in from its players, which is detrimental to the issue when players like Clay Matthews publicly bash the new rules and take away from the positive impact/goals they have.

  12. Thanks for the great article! I think that football is a unique sport in that a large part of the game is the focus on tackling / running into other players. Other sports are similarly aggressive (hockey, rugby, soccer / futbol) but either the sole purpose of the game is not to tackle another player or the players do not wear head protection at all. Therefore, I think that the NFL has to focus on the football use case in the development of safer and better helmets. I think it is great that the NFL is trying to utilize crowdsourcing because this is a serious issue that needs attention and it seems like progress if finally being made. However, given the nature of the sport, I do wonder if the risk of head injury can ever be minimized or improved with better head protection.

  13. It is interesting to see a large body like NFL involving crowd sourced designs for a something as critical as head injuries, something that can threaten the very participation into the game. In that context, it is sad to see a dismal amount of $1.3M being used to spur innovation. Large scale manufacturers are currently unwilling to spur a change, and this makes it even more important for NFL to invest more into this development. Perhaps, partnering with other sports, or exploring areas like 3D printing would lead to the much needed innovation!

  14. Player safety is such a huge problem in football, especially with the increasing number of former players being diagnosed with CTE, so I truly hope that the NFL adopts an open innovation approach to addressing the issue. I see the issue similarly to how the professional sports leagues addressed (or didn’t) the issue of steroids. Provided they want to address the issue, the professional sports leagues stand to gain from seeking input from distributed sources — not simply trying to find the best solution from within their own organizations. Given how long and hard the NFL has tried to deny the mounting evidence of traumatic brain injuries among its players, I am skeptical that the league will truly pursue an open innovation approach to player safety, but I hope it will.

  15. Thanks for addressing this topic.

    I am a little concerned about the adverse impact that “safety” equipment can have. For example, with the use of gloves in boxing, the number of fatalities has sharply increased. Before, a human’s knuckle or wrist would break with enough impact upon a human skull. However, with the cushion of a glove, the risk to the head has increased significantly. My concern is that with ostensibly “safer” helmets, the NFL may make certain illegal helmet-to-helmet hits legal again because helmets can handle more impact. But because of this “safer” helmet, players may be more willing to take risks with their bodies and end up causing themselves even more harm.

  16. The NFL is certainly in a tough spot. They need to protect the safety and health of their players, while making sure that the fans are enjoying the sport at the same time. The fundamental question to me is whether fans will still enjoy the sport if there are not as many violent collisions. You raise good points about the lack of innovation from the NFL’s partners thus far. I can’t help but think that there might be financial incentives to keep large collisions as part of what keeps the sport exciting.

Leave a comment