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Chris Borland breathes life into the NFL concussion debate

10 mins read

The issue of prevalent concussions among football players has been well-documented in recent years, to the point where most news about it starts to look the same. There’s always another study showing the ill-effects of football on the brain, a story about another player whose career and/or life is ruined by head trauma, calls of reform from the NFL, etc. However, Chris Borland, a linebacker who had a promising first year with the San Francisco 49ers, added an interesting dimension to the discussion last week. He announced that he is quitting professional football after doing research regarding concussions and head trauma in football. In his opinion, the risks associated with football and the uncertainty surrounding them weren’t worth the costs. At the ripe age of 24, he is one of the youngest NFL stars to walk away from the game and one of the few who has done so without having obtained a seriously detrimental injury. Some have called him a hero, while others have called him a fraud. Regardless, he has put football-related head trauma back into the media’s spotlight in a refreshing new way.

When asked about his decision, Borland said he believed football was “inherently dangerous.” Studies that have been done regarding brain trauma in former football players back up this claim quite nicely. For example, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs brain repository released data in which 101 out of 128 deceased football players tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy; for former professional players, the rate was 76 out of 79. Borland said he himself suffered two concussions when he was younger and one during 49ers training camp. Although he didn’t suffer any noticeable major effects from any of these instances of head trauma, statistics such as the one above and others were enough to deter him from taking the chance at another football-related concussion.

Because of the unprecedented nature of the move, many skeptics were dumbfounded that he would give up a solid chance at fame and fortune for something that might happen. In response to such a question by Charlie Rose on “CBS This Morning” about how crazy people thought he must be, Borland answered “I understand that … however, there’s a difficult conversation to have with families who have lost loved ones — about how important it is to make a lot of money playing football.” Thus, this was a move out of concern for both his own safety and his future relationship with his family and friends, worth more than money or fame in his opinion.

Borland was also concerned with how there still seems to be a substantial level of uncertainty among doctors and experts working with the NFL about the negative impact of football on the brain. To give the NFL credit, it has come far from the days when it avoided acknowledging the connection between head trauma and football. It has put energy into addressing this problem — helmet designs are constantly changing to lessen the impact of head blows to the brain, better form is being taught at the youth football level so players develop proper tackling technique, and extremely physical plays are being penalized much more heavily in the NFL (to the point where many long-time fans say that the game is starting to become soft). However, after a few years of such efforts, the NFL has begun to feel settled with the improvements it has made, trying to convince fans and the media that the problem is close to being solved, while in reality, it is still a large concern for players.

The NFL’s response to Borland’s decision last week was a perfect indicator of this mentality. Jeff Miller, the NFL’s vice president of health and safety policy, said that the NFL respected Borland’s decision and then proceeded to use the opportunity to flout the NFL’s progress. He gave the usual talk about how concussions were down in the NFL and how plenty of money was being invested into research regarding the issue. This type of response was to be expected, and not all that contemptible because he didn’t really say anything false. The glaring problems with the NFL’s views became apparent later when Dr. Joseph Maroon, a member of the NFL’s Head, Neck, and Spine Committee, made some absurd statements in an attempt to bolster Miller’s claims. First, he made the claim that reports indicating the prevalence of CTE among football players were largely exaggerated. He noted that a recent study of his found that CTE diagnoses were relatively low among youth football players. However, he seemed to have overlooked how CTE usually takes time and repeated head trauma over many years to acquire, as well as the fact that CTE generally cannot be diagnosed in someone who’s still alive.

Maroon also tried to minimize the dangers of head trauma in youth football players. He made the claim that “it’s much more dangerous riding a bike or a skateboard than playing youth football” nowadays. Anyone who’s watched football knows how ridiculous this claim is. Borland responded to this perfectly later when he noted, “The act of riding a bicycle isn’t causing brain trauma … you could fall, but that’s if something goes wrong. Everything could go right in football and it’s still dangerous.” Maroon’s claim here was an example of how the NFL wanted to suppress panic and fear when such feelings are to be entirely expected as long as football remains a sport rooted in brute physical interaction.

What can fans of the NFL, the media, and the NFL itself draw from this? Clearly, we can’t expect this to be a widespread move because then the NFL would just disappear. At the same time, players at every level deserve to understand the dangers of the game they are playing. Borland suggested that youth players should stop trying to downplay the effects of any head-related injuries, something that is widespread throughout a sport that prizes manliness and “toughing it out” above all. Perhaps what Borland’s move contributed was the idea that it is acceptable for a football player to be scared of the effects of head trauma in football and to take caution, rather than play along with a league that is determined to do away with such fear.

I am a longtime fan of the NFL and I can’t deny that I, like many other fans, love the carnal nature of the sport. However, the players we watch on TV from a distance are human beings just like the rest of us, and it’s not quite fair for us to ask players to throw away their future mental health and relationships just for our momentary pleasure. Helmets can only be so advanced, tackling techniques can only be so proper, and rules can only be so stringent. Football can never be perfectly safe, or even close to it. The least we can do for now is respect players with sentiments like Borland, make other players just as aware of risks as well as of how to be safe, and then try to make the game as safe as we possibly can for those who know the risks and still want to play for us.

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