Obviously, the retirement of Chris Borland is a big hit for the San Francisco 49ers in a very rough offseason for them, but it’s also a testament to the changing perception of the NFL and the very tangible fear of head injuries that follow some of these players in the years after retirement.
Borland, 24, was one of the best defensive rookies in the league last season. He was pegged as the one who is going to replace Patrick Willis, the team’s All-Pro linebacker that also announced early retirement in surprising fashion. Now Borland, who played in 14 games last season and was the leading tackler in the NFL from week 7 through 15 (when he started instead of the injured Willis), is leaving due to concerns about his future.
Borland doesn’t have a history of concussions in the NFL, but has said he suffered from it twice: Once playing soccer in Junior High and again when playing football in High School. Through his years at Wisconsin things were fine, and last year in training camp he thinks he had one, but played through it because he wants to make the team regardless of the cost.
But after one year in the NFL and plenty of research done about the effects of playing the sport, Borland has decided this is not for him. More than 70 former players have been diagnosed with progressive neurological disease following their deaths. A number of studies have shown a connection between repetitive head trauma and brain damage and issues such as depression and memory loss.
Borland feels sharp, and is taking a proactive stance. He doesn’t want for symptoms to appear, and he doesn’t want to risk developing a neurological disease which is associated with the damage done to the brain because of the sport. Borland had his misgivings during the 2014 training camp and that feeling grew during the season, getting closer and closer to walking away from the sport.
Borland spoke with researches and had himself tested after the season, pushing him to the decision of retiring. With a bachelor’s degree in history from his years at Wisconsin, Borland is planning to go back and pursue a career in sports management. He leaves a contract that was worth $3 million over four years, which included a signing bonus of $617,000. He has said he won’t change his mind.
For the Niners this is a blow because so many things have gone wrong for them in this offseason, and the hits keep coming. For the NFL, this is a case of player in the prime of his life and the beginning of his career that decides to quit the sport because he fears the affect of having a career in it. More and more parents in the United States are talking about being afraid to send their kids and want them to pursue other sports.
The NFL is still a money making machine, despite all the cracks in the perception of perfection. But it seems everyone is coming around and beginning to believe that this sport is dangerous, and the league will soon be unable to ignore the fact that it has to deal with the long list of players left damaged by playing in what has turned into a rink for modern gladiators, only more and more of them are no longer oblivious to the risks involved, willing to do something about it.