Chris Borland’s retirement a landmark decision for NFL concussion protocol

In Footy Culture, Front Page, The Breakdown by Aaron WestLeave a Comment

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Maybe the most powerful move Chris Borland has ever made is making the incredible leap to retire from football at the age of 24 after just one year in the NFL. A rising star, recording 107 tackles, a sack, and starting 8 games for the San Francisco 49ers, Borland’s decision to leave the sport is a huge shock to a league that has seen the pressure on their concussion policies ratcheted up immensely in recent years.

Currently, a lawsuit settlement worth $1bn brought by nearly 5,000 former NFL players against the league for head injuries suffered during their careers is being reviewed. Senior U.S. District Judge Anita Brody in Philadelphia has yet to approve the deal, following concerns with the final payout amount, qualifying recipients, and more.

With the latest revision, retired players with severe cognitive illnesses could receive up to a $5 million settlement, while the average payout for former players with dementia is expected to be about $190,000. However, around 200 of the league’s 20,000 retirees have opted out and could pursue charges separately.

Still, however, the league does not cover chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease strongly associated with football-associated concussions, a fact that has been hotly disputed in the legal realm. The condition, which can currently only be diagnosed after death, can cause depression, rage and other mood disorders, drastically affecting cognitive function and quality of life.

Chris Borland doesn’t want to be part of that settlement, revision or no. After consulting with family members, concussion researchers, friends and current and former teammates, as well as studying what’s known about the relationship between football and neurodegenerative disease, the standout linebacker made the informed decision to walk away from the game, and a $540,000 salary. Speaking to ESPN’s Outside the Lines, Bortland opened up about his thought process: ”I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health. From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

While Borland’s concerns are far from abnormal, his decision to step away from America’s most popular sport is unprecedented. At just 24 years old, the promising young 49er didn’t even come close to the NFL average 3.3 year career. However, for him, with no wife, children, a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Wisconsin, and plans to return to school for sport management, the decision to walk away from his four-year contract with the 49ers worth just under $3 million is one he can make with a relatively clear conscience.

Nevertheless, for those who feel the need to persist in their dream to make a living in the National Football League, walking away may not be an option. Whether through fiscal necessity,  familial responsibility, or simply due to a love and passion for the game, players will stay in the league. As such, the NFL must move to protect its employees. While the settlement is a step in the right direction, the NFL concussion protocols have come under increasing scrutiny and pressure must be intensified on the league to step up and take care of its players. Chris Borland may be an anomaly for now, but with concussion awareness at an all time high, players deciding to take care of their brains and step away from the game may be an increasing trend for the league to worry about.

While the vast majority of youngsters with aspirations to become NFL athletes will continue to pursue their dreams regardless of concussion protocol, the NFL cannot continue unchecked. Both the prospect of losing out on marquee athletes, as well as increased public and legal pressure dictate that the league must continue in the right direction or risk a real problem. Chris Borland’s decision may well be a landmark one for safety in NFL play.

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About the Author

Aaron West