Fear Of Brain Trauma Prompts Star Linebacker To Retire After Rookie Year

49ers linebacker Chris Borland celebrates an interception in November. CREDIT: (AP PHOTO/BILL KOSTROUN, FILE)
49ers linebacker Chris Borland celebrates an interception in November. CREDIT: (AP PHOTO/BILL KOSTROUN, FILE)

After just one season in the NFL, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland on Monday told ESPN’s Outside The Lines that he was retiring amid concerns about future brain injuries. Borland, 24, was one of the league’s top rookies last season and was expected to be a key contributor for a San Francisco team that had already lost linebacker Patrick Willis to an unexpectedly early retirement.

“I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told OTL’s Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

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Borland said he had suffered just two concussions over his career, one while playing middle school soccer and another while playing high school football. But he made his decision after consulting family members and concussion experts, and decided the game wasn’t worth the risk.

“I feel largely the same, as sharp as I’ve ever been. For me, it’s wanting to be proactive,” Borland continued. “I’m concerned that if you wait ’til 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.”

Borland’s decision comes at a time when concussions and brain injuries continue to be one of the biggest issues facing the NFL and football in general. Doctors have found chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a degenerative disease thought to be linked to repeated head trauma that can lead to dementia and other cognitive disabilities — in dozens of former football players, including Hall of Famers like former linebacker Junior Seau. Though CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously, doctors have warned living players like ex-running back Tony Dorsett that their brains are showing warning signs of the disease (worth noting: doctors have found CTE in soccer and baseball players as well, though not at near the rates of football players).

His decision comes at a time when other players have shown concerns about their futures too: New York Giants punter Steve Weatherford and former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Sidney Rice, who retired in 2014 after suffering multiple concussions, said earlier this month that they planned to donate their brains for research after their deaths. A plethora of former players and coaches have said publicly that they would question letting their kids play the game. And the reactions of other players, like St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long, were largely supportive and showed that there may be more concern among players for their long-term futures:

https://twitter.com/JOEL9ONE/status/577658165346623488

Borland’s decision, however, remains somewhat unique in a game where players still return to games despite suffering concussions and where many players have said the risks of brain injuries are worth it. Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker, for instance, continued playing despite suffering three concussions in 10 months last year and has laughed off any long-term concerns. Both the NFC Championship and Super Bowl featured high-profile players returning to games despite suffering hits to the head.

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The NFL isn’t going to see a rash of early retirements due to Borland’s decision, and if recent history is any indication, it will continue to roll along even amid increased concussion and brain injury concerns (and its handling of them, which led to a massive lawsuit from more than 4,500 ex-players). Still, Borland calling it quits at such an early age could be evidence that, contra the days when the NFL actively kept players from knowing the risks of concussions, awareness over the risks of brain injuries is increasing particularly among a newer generation of players, and could, as NFL agent Andrew Brandt posited on Twitter, help lead to more players thinking twice before jumping back into games after possibly concussive hits. And it could drive even more awareness at the youth level, where participation has dropped in recent years in part because more parents are reconsidering whether it is safe for their children to play.