Over the last few years, the NFL has been dragged kicking and screaming to admit what it never wanted to admit: the game of football has clear and distinct ties to head trauma and a host of other concerns. Thousands of current and former NFL players deal with physical, mental and emotional issues tied to head trauma inflicted upon them, and many who watch such trends have wondered when the players who love the game will push back.
In that regard, the retirement of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland is a major step forward. Borland, a third-round pick out of Wisconsin in the 2014 draft, told ESPN's Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru on Monday that he is retiring from football due to concerns over his future, and how head trauma may affect it.
"I just honestly want to do what's best for my health," Borland said. "From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk ... I feel largely the same, as sharp as I've ever been, for me it's wanting to be proactive. I'm concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it's too late. ... There are a lot of unknowns. I can't claim that X will happen. I just want to live a long healthy life, and I don't want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise."
49ers general manager Trent Baalke said this in a statement:
“While unexpected, we certainly respect Chris’ decision. From speaking with Chris, it was evident that he had put a great deal of thought into this decision. He was a consummate professional from day one and a very well respected member of our team and community. Chris is a determined young man that overcame long odds in his journey to the NFL and we are confident he will use the same approach to become very successful in his future endeavors. We will always consider him a 49er and wish him all the best.”
Borland said that he first started to have concerns about football's effects on him during his rookie training camp, when he suffered what he believed to be a concussion on a running play. But because he was concerned that he would not make the team if he came out, he continued practicing.
Whatever misgivings he may have had, they certainly didn't show on the field. Borland excelled in his rookie campaign, amassing 84 solo tackles, 23 assists, a sack, two interceptions and five passes defensed in 14 games and eight starts.
But as he told ESPN, the desire to stay on the field even when possibly concussed, and the history of the men before him who have done the same, stayed with him.
"I just thought to myself, 'What am I doing? Is this how I'm going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I've learned and knew about the dangers?'"
Borland wrote a letter to his parents during the season, he said, explaining that his NFL career would probably be a short one. And after his rookie season, according to the report, he consulted several renowned concussion experts to get a better feel for the dangers.
"I've thought about what I could accomplish in football, but when you read about Mike Webster and Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, you read all these stories and to be the type of player I want to be in football, I think I'd have to take on some risks that as a person I don't want to take on."
Webster, Duerson and Easterling were all diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, after their deaths. The last few years of Webster's life were a kind of hell, and Duerson and Easterling committed suicide. Duerson shot himself in the chest and left a note that he wanted his brain to be used for CTE research. CTE comes about as the result of multiple head injuries, and can lead to memory loss, aggression, confusion, depression and suicidal thoughts.
But the story that impacted players most of all, at all levels of the game, is the story of former linebacker Junior Seau, the legendary linebacker who killed himself with a gunshot wound to the chest in May, 2012. After his death, the future Hall-of-Famer was found to have CTE, and stories started to come out about erratic behavior that fit the profile.
The NFL denied for decades that football had any relation to head trauma and that head trauma had any relation to CTE, rolling out a truly shameful array of medical "experts" who clearly did not have their patients' best interests in mind. It was public pressure that forced the league to admit those connections, and commissioner Roger Goodell had to be publicly shamed by Congress and beaten down by various class-action lawsuits from former players to take any steps at all in the right direction.
Still, most of those steps are diversions. The NFL doesn't use the best possible helmet technology, it doesn't track concussions as well as it could given the evidence available, and a lot of what comes out of the league offices on the subject sounds like so much spin, whether it is or not, because it has so often been. Therefore, players have no real reason to believe that the league will look out for them.
Borland is the fifth player 30 or younger to retire in the last few weeks, and the second 49ers player. Linebacker Patrick Willis announced his retirement on March 10, citing pain in his feet. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds and Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker also retired, though both expressed a desire to do other things with their lives.
Last year, former Vikings and Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice called it quits at age 27, and though a skeptical person could claim that Rice was already on the way out from a practical perspective, what he told CBS News about the reason for his retirement resonates with this story.
"You have these guys that have been going to the same house for 25 years," he said. "And all of the sudden they get to a certain point on their way home and they have to call their wives to get the directions home. So that is something that really hit home for me after having experienced so many concussions."
Rice said that while he showed no signs of head trauma, he experienced several concussions during his NFL career. He and Giants punter Steve Weatherford are two players who have agreed to donate their brains posthumously for research.
Borland earned a bachelor's degree in history from Wisconsin and says he'll probably go back to study sports management. In truth, his sense of history led him to a decision that he may never regret -- and other NFL players could use this type of management..
Chris Borland's retirement may be a surprise, but it's hardly an outlier, and this won't be the last time it happens. As the true effects of the game have become public, the game will be seen with different, and more knowing, eyes.