As additional information continues to come out about the relationship between football and brain injury, more and more players are starting to take control of their own health.
This week, two relatively young and healthy NFL players ended their careers early: 23-year-old Buffalo Bills linebacker A.J. Tarpley and 32-year-old New York Jets left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson.
Tarpley, who had two interceptions in just three games during his rookie year with the Bills, posted his decision on Instagram. He said that he suffered two concussions during his season with the Bills — the third and fourth of his career — and is “walking away from the game I love to preserve my future health.”
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Ferguson, a three-time Pro Bowler, was known for durability throughout his 10 seasons — he only missed one single offensive snap throughout his decade-long tenure with the Jets. Although his game declined a little bit last season and the Jets reportedly asked him to take a pay cut, ESPN’s Rich Cimini says his decision has nothing to do with his salary — “He just felt it was just time.” Ferguson was never even listed on an injury report during his career.
It is unknown if Ferguson’s decision to retire was solely due to concerns about brain injuries. But last year, after seeing the Will Smith film Concussion, Ferguson wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated where he admitted that his understanding of what results in brain injury had been very limited; he was under the impression that only the big collisions could result in brain damage, when in reality, it’s the repeated subconcussive hits that can sometimes do the most harm.
“After learning all of this, I feel a bit betrayed by the people or committees put in place by the league who did not have my best interests at heart,” he wrote.
It used to be practically unheard of for NFL players to retire before they were forced to, but San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland essentially started this trend last year when he retired after his rookie season. Since then, Borland has become a vocal advocate for concussion awareness, and has even connected with ESPN Outside the Lines reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, who have reported extensively on the NFL’s attempts to keep the league’s concussion problems a secret.
Last fall, Green Bay Packers rookie Adrian Coxson retired after training camp because he was afraid that the next hit could “possibly kill me or be life-damaging.”
This was why the NFL didn't want players fully aware of risks. It wasn't about liability. It was about young guys making informed decisions.
— Doug Farrar (@BR_DougFarrar) April 8, 2016
There is growing evidence that football causes CTE, a degenerative brain disease that can lead to dementia, depression, and death. The disease has been found in 96 percent of the brains of former NFL players studied, and it’s clear that it doesn’t take a long career for CTE to take hold. The disease has been discovered in the brains of amateur athletes who played contact sports, and in January, doctors discovered that CTE had contributed to the death of 27-year-old Tyler Sash, a former NFL safety who had played in only 23 games in the league.
With youth participation in the sport down and players hanging up their cleats sooner, it’s clear that something in football is going to have to change if the NFL wants to maintain its popularity.
Can This New Football League Be The Savior The Sport Needs?As I drove up to Baltimore on a rainy, cold day in March to watch the Baltimore Cobras of the American 7s Football…thinkprogress.orgLast month, a top NFL official finally admitted a link between football and brain injury, but since then, prominent NFL owners and coaches have been downplaying the concern — according to Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, the risk of playing football is akin to the risk of taking an aspirin.
However, the string of early retirements prove that even if those in charge are still in denial, players are starting to fully comprehend the risk of playing the sport.
“When I initially heard about 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who decided to retire after one professional season for the risk of brain injury, I thought perhaps he was acting very abruptly, but now I cannot fault him,” Ferguson wrote after watching Concussion. “If we know the risks, then why do we still play?”