An Unlikely Funder Moving the Ball on Neuroscience Research: The NFL

Recent years have seen a rising storm of controversy about brain injuries and professional football, including a major motion picture, Concussion, starring Will Smith. In turn, growing concerns have produced a new stream of grant money for researchers from the NFL. Much of this money has been given under duress, as part of a larger PR push. Regardless, it's created new opportunities for research funding that didn't exist before. Let's take a look. 

In 2012, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that the NFL would be making its largest-ever donation of $30 million to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The gift, Goodell explained in a press release, was “part of our (the NFL's) continuing effort to try to pioneer research that is going on to improve the safety of our players.” The NFL's $30 million donation established the Sports and Health Research Program within the NIH and supports broad-based brain and brain injury research.

Related: Why the NFL Got Its Head in the Research Game

The following year, the NFL contributed $12 million to the NIH to fund research projects studying the diagnosis and treatment of brain injuries in football players, specifically looking at chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. Earlier this year, 87 of the former 91 NFL players who chose to donate their brains to science tested positive for CTE.

According to the NFL, the league and its partners have already spent over $100 million on “new equipment and long-term studies on the impact of concussions and repeated head blows.” Of course, professional sports are big money, and the NFL is no exception with the average team valued at $2.34 billion

Recently, the National Football League announced that it’s putting up an additional $100 million for the development of new technologies and increased research on the effects of head injuries.

The money is going to support the NFL's "Play Smart, Play Safe" initiative, which, according to the open letter penned by Goodell, will “drive progress in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of head injuries,” and improve medical protocols. A portion of the funds, some $40 million, is dedicated to independent research as well as an independent advisory board charged with identifying the most compelling research proposals about head injuries. 

Additional details of the grants have not yet emerged. But the research and advisory board autonomy is key, here. In 2012, the NFL came under heavy fire after it was accused of blocking $16 million of its $30 million give to the NIH from being used in seven-year grant program involving CTE and degenerative brain disease linked to head hits in contact sports. The move came even after the NFL said it would have no say nor veto power regarding how its donation was used. The NIH in partnership with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke launched the program anyway.

Goodell said that the latest $40 million in research funds will underwrite research that "will have benefits far beyond football," and he's probably right about that. There's a lot of interesting action going on right now in neuroscience, raising high hopes for breakthroughs related to Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases. Plenty of new funders have been coming into this space. Regardless of why the NFL has joined this effort, its money is sure to come in handy.