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Borland Retirement: Is 24 Too Late to Stop Football Brain Damage?

NFL rookie Chris Borland say he's exiting the game to save his brain but here's the question: Is it soon enough?
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NFL rookie Chris Borland say he's exiting the game to save his brain but here's the question: Is it soon enough?

Autopsies of football players who quit after high school or college have shown signs of permanent brain damage presumably linked to concussions.

The game isn’t the same as it was back in the 1970s and '80s when Webster was a star center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, said Maroon, team neurosurgeon for the Steelers and a professor of neurosurgery and the Heindl Scholar in Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh.

“There have been many, many improvements in the safety of football at all levels, including the NFL,” Maroon said. “There have been rule changes and safer tackling techniques and markedly improved protocols with respect to the management of concussions.”

Still, Maroon said, “I think everyone has to make their own decisions. And obviously [Borland] knew that he played with concussions in the past.”

And that may be the crux of it. Concussions may be getting better treatment when they are recognized, but there’s plenty of evidence that they are often not caught.

A 2103 study by Harvard and BU researchers showed that players still don’t report most concussions.

The survey of some 700 college football, Nowinski said, "found that out of 28 times they were hit and developed concussion symptoms, 27 weren’t reported. And the brains of some of the college players who made it to old age were indistinguishable from the NFL players.”

Still, Nowinski cautioned, “it’s important to realize we don’t understand the progression of this disease very much. But it’s not unlikely that the more years you play and the more injuries you get, the faster the disease progresses.”

Borland’s retirement offers another glimpse at what appears to be a rapidly changing NFL landscape: Four well-known players aged 30 or younger have now retired this off-season, including Jake Locker, Jason Worilds, and Borland's teammate Patrick Willis.

“It’s of great interest,” said Dr. Julian Bailes, medical director for Pop Warner Football and chairman of the department of neurosurgery at the NorthShore University Health System and co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute. “It’s unusual for someone of his youth and great talent and promise and potential as a professional athlete and wage earner to make this decision.

"The case raises a lot of fundamental questions.”

What no one knows yet, Bailes said, is whether this is “the new norm.”

“Is this the way that players are going to be considering this — that retirement doesn’t have to come from a season ending or career ending injury, but based on what might happen later to the brain? This is a sea change.”