The National Football League’s continuing concussion crisis deepened, when one of its most promising young players, Chris Borland, announced he was retiring because the risks of long-term brain damage were simply too great.
Already this March – technically the first month of the forthcoming 2015 NFL season – three players have walked away from pro football, all of them 30 or under. But none has generated the impact of Borland, the 24-year-old linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers and one of the league’s most promising young stars, who was expected to be a linchpin of the 49ers’ defense for years to come.
Borland’s decision, however, was not taken lightly and followed weeks of consultation with his family, concussion experts and former team-mates. “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” he told ESPN. “From what I’ve researched and experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
Borland said he had twice been diagnosed with concussion while at school, long before he entered the NFL. “I feel largely the same, as sharp as I’ve ever been,” he added. “But, for me, it’s wanting to be proactive. I’m concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it’s too late.”
Borland will lose the bulk of his $3m (£2m) contract, and the likelihood of tens of millions of dollars more had he stayed in the game.
For the NFL, the immediate consequences may be few. For the moment, it bestrides American sport. With annual revenues of $10bn or more, it is arguably the richest sports league on earth. Its games top the TV ratings, while its annual showpiece, the Super Bowl championship game, is a national institution.
In the longer term, however, Borland’s departure could be profoundly damaging. The issue of concussion and later life brain damage, leading to depression, dementia, even suicide, is the great shadow hanging over the NFL’s future.
More than 70 ex-players have been posthumously diagnosed with CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the degenerative disease once known as dementia pugilistica because of its association with boxers who had taken too many punches. Among them was Junior Seau, superstar linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, who killed himself in 2012, aged just 43.
Last year, by agreeing an open-ended sum for compensation, the NFL finally settled a class action suit brought by some 4,500 former players, some of whom accused it of deliberately concealing the risks of concussion. And despite the league’s efforts to reduce the dangers – from tougher sanctions on reckless hits to improved helmets and tighter medical supervision – critics argue that not enough is being done.
Perhaps more ominously for the future, parents are increasingly reluctant about their children playing the game at school. This will threaten the NFL’s supply of fresh talent and perhaps sow the seeds of a long-term decline.