The NFL’s health crisis has a new face: Chris Borland, a promising linebacker for San Francisco 49ers, who abruptly announced that he will walk away from the game after his rookie season, at the age of 24.
He cited concerns about head trauma. “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” he told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.” “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
Here are some things to know.
Who is he?
Borland grew up in Ohio and played college ball at Wisconsin. He was on the 2011 team with Russell Wilson, the future Super Bowl-winning quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks. After Borland's retirement announcement, Wilson offered his prayers.
Borland was a third-round draft pick. For the 49ers, he had 108 tackles last season and was named the NFC’s defensive player of the week for a 13-tackle game against the New York Giants.
He told ESPN that he had two diagnosed concussions — one while playing soccer in eighth grade and one in high school football — and that he believed he suffered a third during training camp last year.
Borland said that he had consulted with former players and prominent concussion researchers in making his decision. He is walking away from the final three years of a reported $3 million contract.
“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 know about the dangers?’” he told ESPN.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J. and the co-chair of a congressional task force on traumatic brain injury, praised the young player for “a sobering statement. He didn’t go overboard. What he did was put it in perspective.”
By coincidence, Pascrell and his task force will host a TBI awareness day on Wednesday. He said raising awareness about concussions is critical. And he said Borland clearly understood the risks of what has befallen some former players.
“They’re like vegetables, 45-50 years of age,” he said. “What are we doing to ourselves?”
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Have other players done it?
Three other NFL players age 30 or younger have hung it up this offseason, but none quite like Borland.
Jason Worilds of the Steelers walked away from a reported $15 million, saying he wanted to pursue “other interests.” Jake Locker said he no longer had “the burning desire necessary.” Patrick Willis cited foot surgery and pain.
But writers who cover the game said they couldn’t recall a case like Borland — walking away so young and explicitly saying that he didn’t want to take the long-term risk of brain trauma.
In his ESPN interview, Borland cited three former players who were diagnosed with the brain disease known as CTE after their deaths, including two who killed themselves.
What does the league say?
That football has never been safer. Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety, said in a statement that concussions were down 25 percent this season, the third consecutive year of declines.
“We are seeing a growing culture of safety,” he said. “Everyone involved in the game knows that there is more work to do, and player safety will continue to be our top priority.”
Eliot Wolf, the director of player personnel for the Green Bay Packers, suggested he wasn’t worried about the popularity of the game:
What about other players?
They were quick to offer their best wishes on Twitter. Some expressed shock, and quite a few suggested that the decision was an eye-opener. Donté Stallworth, who retired after the 2012 season, said players are more concerned about safety than ever before.
USA Football, a nonprofit governing body for youth football established by the NFL, created a program two years ago called Heads Up Football that promotes concussion awareness and tries to limit concussion risk for players.
Last month the group released guidelines for how to handle sudden cardiac arrest and safer blocking. A study commissioned by USA Football reported that players in leagues that take part in Heads Up have 76 percent fewer injuries.
“The football community is being proactive,” said Steve Alic, a spokesman. “This is not your father’s youth football.”
Parents clearly have concerns. In a recent poll by Bloomberg Politics, 50 percent of respondents said that they would not want their son to play football, compared with 43 percent who would.
The Pop Warner youth league did not return a call for comment.
What does the research say?
A growing body of research links the kind of repeated head trauma suffered by football players — particularly when they encounter that trauma early in life, while the brain is developing — to long-term problems with memory and cognitive function.
The NFL said in federal court documents last year that it expects almost a third of its retired players to develop cognitive problems, and that those problems would probably emerge at younger ages than for most people.
And in a study published earlier this year in the journal Neurology, former NFL players who played tackle football before age 12 were found to have greater declines in memory and mental agility.
— Erin McClam