He’s just 24, but 49ers linebacker Chris Borland is leaving millions on the field, the latest to decide a pro career isn’t worth years of head injury.
It has been an offseason like no other in the NFL. Young players, with many games and millions of dollars ahead of them, are walking away from the country’s most popular sport.
And San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who announced his retirement Monday, stands out because of how explicit he was regarding his concerns about head injuries.
Borland’s decision came just days after Patrick Willis, a seven-time All-Pro linebacker with the 49ers, announced he would retire rather than risk more injury.
Former University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker, 26, of the Tennessee Titans; cornerback Cortland Finnegan, 31, who last played for the Miami Dolphins; and linebacker Jason Worilds, 27, of the Pittsburgh Steelers, have all retired this offseason for a variety of reasons.
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But Borland, 24, who played at the University of Wisconsin, is the youngest and most promising of the players to leave.
Borland told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” he wanted to be proactive and was worried if he waited until he had any signs of repetitive head trauma, it would be too late.
“From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk,” he said.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease caused by repeated head hits, has been found in the autopsies of several former NFL players who killed themselves, including 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau.
Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett is among former players diagnosed with evidence of a progressive brain disease caused by head trauma and tied to dementia, ESPN has reported.
As evidence has mounted linking blows sustained on the field with long-term cognitive disability, the league has scrambled to find an appropriate response. For years, NFL officials disputed the work of independent researchers and refused to acknowledge any connection. More recently, the NFL has tweaked rules to try to mitigate some of the most jarring blows to the head.
Surprising, and perhaps even more unsettling for the league’s long-term prospects, was the reaction from fellow players and the game’s notoriously tough fan base: an almost-unanimous show of respect for a young player who left millions on the table rather than expose himself to more concussions.
Several current and retired players expressed support.
“I loved Chris Borland’s game but I can’t fault him for calling it quits,” Chris Long, a defensive lineman on the St. Louis Rams, said on Twitter. “His concerns are real. Still, it takes a man to do the logical.”
Donté Stallworth, who last played in 2012 after a 10-year career with six teams, saw Borland’s retirement as a result of growing awareness of the potential long-term cognitive damage facing players.
“Players today are more concerned now than ever before regarding brain trauma and health issues,” he said on Twitter. “It’s scary!”
Sidney Rice, who at 27 walked away from the NFL after winning a Super Bowl title in 2014 with the Seattle Seahawks, said his retirement was prompted by health concerns and that he suffered more than 10 concussions over his seven-year career. Rice earlier this month announced a plan to donate his brain after his death to help further research on head trauma as it relates to NFL players.
It’s not just brain trauma that’s chased some players out of the game.
Former New York Giants running back David Wilson retired from football in August at 23 after doctors advised him that playing again after a neck injury could permanently threaten his health. Wilson, a 2012 first-round pick, had a herniated disc in his neck and vertebrae-fusion surgery.
Jeff Miller, NFL senior vice president for health and safety policy, said “playing any sport is a personal decision.” But, he added: “We are seeing a growing culture of safety. Everyone involved in the game knows that there is more work to do, and player safety will continue to be our top priority.”
Miller also noted that concussions were down 25 percent last year and that there’s been a significant investment in researching and understanding issues such as brain trauma.
The NFL’s $765 million settlement with former players over concussions was blocked in February by a federal judge who said the league should expand payment for some claims made by the more than 5,000 players who sued to seek damages for head injuries.
The rising evidence of links between repeated head trauma and long-term cognitive problems has persuaded more parents to steer their children to other sports, and the decision by a young player like Borland might accelerate that trend.
A recent Bloomberg Politics poll found that half of Americans did not want their sons playing football. A separate survey by Robert Morris University showed that nearly half of those polled said boys should not be allowed to play tackle football until they reached high school.
Borland told ESPN that he had received diagnoses of two concussions before arriving at Wisconsin. One was while playing soccer in eighth grade, and the other was while playing football in high school.
Borland had 108 tackles in 14 games as a rookie and was poised to take over as a full-time starting linebacker in 2015. Yet he said he’s more focused on his later life.
“I just want to live a long healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise,” said Borland, who received a $617,000 guaranteed signing bonus in the four-year, $2.9 million contract he signed with the 49ers.
“This was somebody who got educated on the issue, and the choices he was facing,” said Chris Nowinski, a Harvard graduate, author and former pro wrestler who was instrumental in the formation of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy .
“It shows the macho culture of ‘destroy yourself for the game’ is losing its grip, that it’s no longer cool to question people’s toughness. That represents a big shift in thinking from just a few years ago,” he said.
“And then there’s the 3 million or so youngsters playing the game at the lower levels,” Nowinski added. “Will something like this lead to better and more effective safety measures for them?”
That prompted Eliot Wolf, the Green Bay Packers’ director of player personnel, to tweet: “Anyone worried about the future of football should see the amount of calls and emails we get from kids literally begging to get into pro days.”
Nowinski believes much of the credit for the paradigm shift is an outgrowth of the continuing research at Boston University’s CTE center. Because CTE — a degenerative disease which often results in memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression — can only be diagnosed during an autopsy, he helped persuade families of several deceased players to donate their brains.
The CTE center has confirmed that 76 of the 79 NFL players whose brains were examined showed signs of degenerative brain trauma.