After a stellar rookie season in the National Football League, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland shocked the world of professional football on Monday with the announcement that he was retiring.
The 24 year-old gave up fame, millions of dollars and an opportunity to play the game he loves for one reason: he was scared. Scared of the dangers of playing football, which include the significant risk of brain damage caused by repetitive head trauma. He was scared of the statistics, which say that more than 70 former players have been diagnosed with progressive neurological disease after their deaths, and that brain trauma affects one in three players.
And he was scared of playing on the same field as perennial case studies Mike Webster and Junior Seau. Webster was diagnosed after his death in 2002 with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease that mimics brain damage previously seen in people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Seau was diagnosed with CTE after he committed suicide in 2012. In both cases, it is widely speculated that repetitive head trauma from contact on the field was to blame.
Borland’s retirement will be the first of many if the NFL doesn’t take the necessary steps to address the dangers of its game. But let’s face it; the league is a $9 billion per year business with a vested stake in keeping this issue quiet. For the sake of humanity, it’s time to speak up.
For starters, the NFL must join the rest of us in acknowledging that there is a major problem, and that starts by accurately reporting the facts each week.
In the 2013 season, there were 228 diagnosed concussions in the NFL, but just 152 were listed on the league’s official injury report, according to PBS. By mislabeling injuries, the NFL and its franchises are putting players at risk of greater head trauma, and by distorting concussion numbers, there is no way for a player to make an educated decision in the long run.
The league must also do a better job of keeping players off of the field after concussions. PBS reports that in 2012, there were at least 86 instances in which a player returned from a concussion without missing a single game. That’s dangerous.
It is also dangerous that high school football players are mimicking their favorite players by going for huge hits, and even though the NFL flags players for “head hunting,” that’s not enough to educate the youth on safety. Proper tackling must be taught at the youth football level.
The NFL must use Borland’s retirement as a reason for change.