Chris Borland, 24-year-old, second-year inside linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers will never step foot on a football field again. However rather than the usual heartbreaking tale of a young man or woman being forced to quit due to a debilitating injury, Borland has stepped away from a game he was sure to light up for years to come in the fullness of his health. He’s announced his early retirement for the very practical reason of ensuring his future health.
NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, who if you’re familiar with you most likely can’t stand, has been rather careful how he broaches any questions regarding Borland’s truly unprecedented manner of retirement. His line is, in effect, ‘players retire all the time, I am absolutely fantastic because I have put player safety on the agenda more than any commissioner before me and Chris Borland is his own man.’ (Entirely our words not his) Goodell has had a tough year, generally attributable to his teak- tough arrogance, and he knows the N.F.L. need to appear to care about their players right now. In light of the premature, tragic deaths of, amongst others, Junior Seau, Terry Long and Dave Duerson, a realisation has surfaced, passively buried by the NFL for years, that the head trauma received during playing careers is actually taking lives.
You may have heard of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) a degenerative disease which, at least for the moment, can only be definitively identified posthumously. Repeated concussions and severe head trauma are the main causes of this viciously progressive disease. The disease has been studied at length, particularly by neurologists in the United States and the studies have rightly become a topic of public as well as medical debate. Borland’s decision appears, very much from the outside looking in, to have elicited a really positive response from the American public. No one is glad to see him go but everyone can see the rationale behind his decision.
As we said, he’s twenty-four, has been diagnosed ‘just’ twice with concussion – he says another concussion may have gone unnoticed- but has decided in his own words to be “proactive” and to “live a long, healthy life”. Further as Borland noted, “…to be the type I want to be in football, I think I’d have to take on some risks that as a person I don’t want to take on.” Anyone who watched Borland in his rookie season will know that he was fearless to a fault and absolutely torpedoed himself into tackles. His playing style was going to involve some thunderous impact to the head, in what would probably have been a decade long career.
Here is a young man set to make multi-millions, who truly believes that your health is your wealth. The question is however, whether Borland’s decision will actually cause current or prospective NFL players to quit the game. The always excellent Bill Barnwell of Grantland best addressed this question last week by basically stating that Borland’s decision has, in effect, evaporated just one drop from a massive ocean of players. Unless the players decide en masse that they too, like Borland, do not want to run the risk of ending their days, far too early in a state of anger and depression, the show will simply go on minus one very brave, young man.
Of course, right now, closer to home, debate is rife as to the danger rugby players are putting themselves in by exposing themselves to repeated head trauma. New concussion protocols have been brought in and though some players disagree with them, the new rules have specifically been brought in to protect their health, both now and in the future. Logic would suggest that rugby players get concussed about as often as NFL players so the jarring reality is that CTE is going to be discovered very soon in deceased former players.
The issue right now though is to look at men like Chris Borland and, say, Leigh Halfpenny – who suffered a severe concussion after getting his tackling technique all wrong last Saturday- and wonder who has made the right decision. Borland has given up enough money to ensure financial security for him and his loved ones for the rest of his life, in order to secure his health. Halfpenny and any number of sportspeople who have been concussed in recent weeks will rest up, shake away the cobwebs and go back to playing the games they love more than anything.
In all honesty, neither man’s decision is incorrect. You can’t deny someone the opportunity to play nor berate them for doing so, nor indeed can you criticise a man or woman for putting their mental and physical wellbeing first. As fans we want the best players out there and, let’s be honest, when a monster hit goes in the player, his team and, of course, the crowd are energised. At the same the monstrous hits are the cause of the serious head injuries. For clarity’s sake, don’t for one second think we are preaching. When rugby league’s State of Origin series comes around in June – our favourite annual sporting event outside of the All-Ireland Hurling Final- we’ll be engrossed not only by the quality of the rugby but also by the devastating intensity of the hits that so define these games.
So, we are left in a bit of a quandary. Despite the widespread acclaim for the former San Francisco 49er’s very much isolated decision, one suspects we would be quietly livid if the vast majority of rugby and NFL players retired mid-career, even if it was to protect their health. One wonders if the majority of sportspeople are simply thinking, ‘that guy’s just thrown away the opportunity of a lifetime’, when perhaps he has just grasped one. No one is right and no one is wrong, as such. Nevertheless sporting authorities the world over are sitting up to take notice of the potentially devastating effects of head injuries, so Borland’s decision can only be a good thing. The show will always go on but for now, for the better, it has been forced to really consider the lifeblood of the game, the players.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Bill Lonergan