Former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland retired last week after a promising rookie season, citing his fears of long-term health problems that could be brought on by head injuries. Borland gave up a likely lucrative career in the NFL, in the process alerting the football-watching public to the biggest issue it does not want to confront.
The elephant in the room of being a football fan in 2015 is the concrete knowledge that football is a brutal game that drastically damages and shortens the lives of even its most physically capable players.
The autopsies of former NFL players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, both of whom committed suicide, displayed evidence of a degenerative brain condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which has been linked to concussions, a common football injury.
Common conditions that accompany CTE include dementia, early-onset Alzheimers or other documented effects of traumatic brain injury. However, since CTE can only be tested in autopsies, it is impossible to trace these mental deficiencies back to CTE or particular instances of head trauma.
Borland, who cited his own research into CTE and brain injuries in his decision to retire, has created an opportunity to have a public debate about the risks of playing football. Rather than trying to have such a discussion after a tragedy like Seau’s or Duerson’s death, we should view this moment of a gifted, young athlete electing to preserve his health over cashing NFL paychecks as an occasion to evaluate the enormity of the problem at hand.
In the wake of Borland’s retirement announcement, Pittsburgh Steelers team doctor Dr. Joseph Maroon told ESPN that CTE is a “rare phenomenon” that his research uncovered in just 63 isolated cases involving football players over several decades. Of course, many more cases could have occurred, but probably were not detected because the disease can only be detected through a postmortem brain autopsy.
Maroon, whose job is to get players fit enough to play for the Steelers and who reports to the league office, downplayed the very real risks of such a hard-to-detect condition in a way that is irresponsible and reflects poorly on the organized sport as a whole.
It’s not a bold claim to say that repeated head trauma is detrimental to human brain and spinal health. Yet, organized football consistently dismisses such a fact. Borland’s retirement undoes the stranglehold that football culture has on common sense about health risks and should make parents, coaches, school administrators and young players question their involvement in all levels of the game.
It should not take the retirement of players or tragedies like the deaths of ex-players to spark such a moment of reflection, but it is unfortunately necessary to use these occasions to bring up head injuries in football yet again. After all, Chris Borland got out of football with his health intact, while many others have and will not.