Linebacker Chris Borland, the Niners' third-round pick in 2014, and a rising star who notched 107 tackles as a rookie, announced his retirement on Monday. The reason? Fear of concussions, brain injuries, neurodegenerative disease, and early death. As Borland tells Outside the Lines:
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.
Borland graded out at plus-20.8 over 487 snaps last season and was expected to play a major role in replacing Patrick Willis, who made his own surprising retirement announcement last week. The Wisconsin grad says he's only suffered two documented concussions, and that his current health is not forcing him out of the game:
I feel largely the same, as sharp as I've ever been, for me it's wanting to be proactive. I'm concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it's too late. ... There are a lot of unknowns. I can't claim that X will happen. 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.
He then explains that the suffering and deaths of former players contributed to his bold decision:
His success last season did not make his decision more difficult, Borland said: "I've thought about what I could accomplish in football, but for me personally, when you read about Mike Webster and Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, you read all these stories and to be the type of player I want to be in football, I think I'd have to take on some risks that as a person I don't want to take on." Borland was referring to former NFL greats who were diagnosed with a devastating brain disease, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, after their deaths. Duerson and Easterling committed suicide.
Borland said he began to have misgivings during training camp. He said he sustained what he believed to be a concussion stuffing a running play but played through it, in part because he was trying to make the team. "I just thought to myself, 'What am I doing? Is this how I'm going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I've learned and knew about the dangers?'"
Back when the NFL was facing down a class-action suit from ex-players and the families of dead ex-players, many suggested that players "knew what they were getting into" when they chose to play football.
Sure, they knew about the broken bones, the visible scars, the limps, and the forever mangled extremities. But they didn't know about the brain disease, the depression, the dementia, the CTE, or the suicide.
Thanks to Bennet Omalu, the people who told his story, and those who followed Omalu's lead, players like Chris Borland do know about football's cognitive effects. Armed with that understanding, Borland either does not believe the sport can be made safe, or he does not trust the NFL to protect him.
Whichever his reason, there will be more young men like Borland, which again begs the question: for how much longer will the NFL be America's sport?