One of the NFL's most promising young players has announced that he is quitting professional football today, blaming the risk of concussion and serious brain injury on his decision to walk away from the sport. Chris Borland, linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, told ESPN that he was retiring because he wanted to do what was best for his health, and didn't think football was "worth the risk." By leaving the league at only 24 years old, after a stellar rookie season, Borland rapidly becomes one of the most damning examples of the NFL's ongoing concussion crisis.
Thousands of players have sued the NFL over head injuries
Borland says his decision to quit came from him wanting to "be proactive," leaving the sport while his brain is still healthy. The linebacker began to have doubts about his long-term career as a professional football player in his very first NFL training camp, during which he received a suspected concussion on a running play but decided to play through it in a bid to make the team. He told ESPN "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 knew about the dangers?'" After the fourth game of his rookie season, Borland told his parents his time as a pro player would be short.
The linebacker told ESPN that he currently feels as sharp as he's ever been, but that he had researched the issue heavily, speaking with concussion researchers and former players, more than 4,500 of whom have sued the NFL for failing to adequately protect them from head injuries during their time in the league.
In his statement, Borland thanked the 49ers, saying the team "truly looked out for players' best interests," but his departure from the league is made even more notable by coinciding with the exit of several prominent young players. Borland was scheduled to be one of the stars of the San Francisco 49ers defense, playing the last season as the heir apparent to Patrick Willis, another top-tier defensive player who chose this year to retire from the sport after developing chronic pain in his feet. He was joined by by Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds, who announced this month that he was retiring from pro football to pursue other interests.
Four players 30 and under have announced their retirement this month
The NFL has had a long-running problem with concussions and head injuries, and its lackluster methods of protecting players, as detailed in the PBS documentary League of Denial. Many who have played the sport have gone on to suffer debilitating brain diseases. A number of players, including standout San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau, have committed suicide in the years after their retirement. Seau shot himself in the chest so his brain could be studied after his death — after autopsy, it was determined that he had been from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of degenerative brain damage found in other players.
The NFL has made advances in technology designed to help reduce head injuries, but players such as Jahvid Best, a former first-round draft pick who sued both the NFL and helmet maker Riddell after receiving three concussions in two years, are still receiving knockout blows on the field of play that could disable them in later life. The league has also come under fire for a too-weak concussion protocol that allows clearly woozy players back onto the field. In October last year, Chargers defensive back Jahleel Addae played an entire game after being knocked out on the first play. In the fourth quarter, several hours after taking the blow to the head, Addae seemed to lose control of his body after making another hit, jerking his limbs and stepping awkwardly as he attempted to stay upright.
By stepping away from the sport at 24, Borland will avoid the kind of head injuries that could leave him crippled, with diminished mental faculties, or prone to fly into uncontrollable rages. Meanwhile, instead of pouring its efforts into keeping its players safe, the NFL still appears to be in favor of extending the regular season to a gruelling 18 games, despite arguments from the people who actually play the sport.