As anyone who is tapped into the NFL can tell you, concussions are becoming one of the largest issues in the sport. In the wake of several former NFL players committing suicide, autopsies have indicated that they had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which can lead to depression, dementia and memory loss. CTE is distressingly common in former players, which has led to an unprecedented public backlash against the NFL.


This public reaction has led to an increased emphasis on concussion testing and recovery plans for players. Coaches and medical staff are becoming increasingly cautious about players who may be concussed or have a history of concussions, as players will often disregard their safety and will attempt to play through a concussion. (Julian Edelman was guilty of this in the Super Bowl, as he did not exit the field after sustaining a blow to the head, despite being unsteady on his feet—though it’s worth noting he was later cleared to return to the game.)


With the opening of the NFL free agency period last week, we can see how this new focus on concussion safety has impacted the larger mindset of the league. It is becoming increasingly obvious that General Managers, who are responsible for signing new players, are leery of signing players who have a significant history of concussions. Due to the nature of brain injuries, each successive concussion typically requires even more time to recover from, and as such GMs are very reluctant to devote significant money to players with an above average concussion risk, regardless of their talent level.


This is illustrated best through two players this year, Jordan Cameron and Wes Welker. Cameron is a young, athletic tight end that would otherwise attract significant attention as a player, but due to his concussion history remains unsigned. Welker, an aging receiver, has sustained 3 concussions over the past 10 months, which has limited interest in signing him significantly.


This recent trend towards player safety has caused somewhat of a blowback from fans of the sport. A sizable, and vocal, portion of the fan base view the safety changes that the NFL is undergoing as being a betrayal of the original nature of the game. While a reluctance to sign concussion-prone players will surely be met with less vitriol than the on-field rule changes to increase safety, the NFL still faces pressure to return to the less regulated ways of the past. To its credit, the NFL has remained firm in their new conviction to prevent head injuries despite the pressure, though a cynic would point to a recent lawsuit finding it liable for the CTE sustained by former players as the reason.


The increase in concern about concussions in the NFL is long overdue, but it’s better late than never. While it is no doubt motivated by a desire to minimize wasted money, restore some of their tainted image and avoid further litigation, it is nevertheless an indication the NFL may finally be moving in the right direction for player safety.