Chris Borland’s Early Retirement Raises Questions About Football’s Future

Fearing long-term brain damage, Chris Borland retired from the NFL Monday at the age of 24.

By Bennet Hayes

The Monday retirement of Chris Borland, 24 years young and poised for a successful and lucrative NFL career, has sparked serious concern that on-field safety issues may turn young players away from football.

Dave Jacobs, the VP of Health and Safety for Chicagoland Youth Football League, said Borland’s decision is likely to increase already prevalent concerns about the safety of football, particularly among parents contemplating their children’s participation in the sport.

“For lack of better words, we’re under attack,” Jacobs said. “The game is as safe as it’s ever been, but I think we now have the biggest challenge yet to make sure kids still enjoy the sport and are coming out to play it.”

After a promising rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers last fall, Borland’s future in the National Football League appeared bright. On Monday, he decided to cut that future short, retiring from the NFL at age 24 out of concerns about his safety.

This NFL offseason has been defined by early retirement decisions. Within a 24-hour period last week, Jake Locker, 26, and Patrick Willis, 30, each announced decisions to end their NFL careers. Locker was the No. 8 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft; Willis made the Pro Bowl as recently as 2013.

But the announcement from Borland, a second-year middle linebacker with no significant injury history to speak of, sent shock waves through the NFL community.

“I mean, if it could potentially kill you — I know that’s a drastic way to put it, but it is a possibility — that really puts it in perspective to me,” Borland told ESPN Tuesday. “To me, it just wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

What makes Borland’s case different from other early NFL retirements is his relatively clean health record. Premature retirements have almost always stemmed from lengthy injury histories. To that point, Willis and Locker each battled injury problems in recent years.

But outside of a pair of diagnosed concussions in high school and a shoulder injury that cut short his sophomore season at Wisconsin, he had avoided serious injury throughout his football career.

Nate Fritts, research coordinator at Boston University’s CTE Center, which has explored the connection between football impact and brain injuries, said Borland’s linebacker position exposed him to potentially damaging circumstances.

“Recent studies have shown that there is little variation in the number of diagnosed concussions among the primary football positions, but there are significant differences in the number of undiagnosed concussions,” Fritts said via email.

“We know that linebacker is one of the positions, along with lineman, defensive back and running back that is exposed to the highest number of impacts.”

Borland’s choice to retire – in large part to avoid this type of undiagnosed brain trauma – has generated significant discussion, yet the decision has been widely viewed as logical by both players and fans. Does that reaction potentially threaten the future of football?

“When you’ve got athletes at the professional level walking away and saying ‘this is not safe’, that’s going to have a huge impact,” Jacobs said.

And if Borland’s decision prompts other professionals to consider their futures and ultimately make the same choice, Jacobs said the health of the game will only be further jeopardized.

“I think if more NFL players walk away, that message just gets compounded,” he said.

For now, Borland’s decision is an isolated event as thousands of players will still fight for NFL jobs in the lead-up to April’s NFL draft and beyond. The NFL is in no immediate danger of dealing with a labor scarcity.

In December, Bears safety Chris Conte verbalized a view many young players likely hold concerning their futures.

“I’d rather have the experience of playing in the NFL and die 10 to 15 years earlier than not play in the NFL and have a long life,” Conte said. “I don’t really look toward my life after football.”

And Borland knows that many players won’t understand his decision.

“I can relate from the outside looking in that it wouldn’t make sense to a lot of people, and I’ve had close friends who have said, ‘Well, why don’t you just play one more year, it’s a lot more money, you probably won’t get hurt,’ ” he said.

“I just don’t want to get in a situation where I’m negotiating my health for money. Who knows how many hits is too many?”

Fearing long-term brain damage, Chris Borland retired from the NFL Monday at the age of 24.(O. O’Neil/Creative Commons)