49ers Linebacker Chris Borland Retires Early Fearing Brain Damage
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
News of a very early retirement is jolting the NFL. Twenty-four-year-old linebacker Chris Borland says he's retiring after just one season with the San Francisco 49ers out of concern for his safety. In particular, fear of the effects of repetitive head trauma. I don't think it's worth the risk, Borland told ESPN's "Outside The Lines." I just want to live a long, healthy life.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OUTSIDE THE LINES")
CHRIS BORLAND: It's a unique decision to me. I've done a lot of research on what I've experienced in my past projected to what I would have to do to be the linebacker I wanted to be. And for me, it wasn't worth the risk.
BLOCK: Bill Barnwell has been writing about this story for Grantland, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.
BILL BARNWELL: Thank you.
BLOCK: And, Bill, Borland was one of the NFL's top rookies last season. He had a great first year. Is this unprecedented to see a player step away from the game this early, and specifically, citing the fear of brain injury?
BARNWELL: I don't believe there is a precedent. There are guys who have retired because of religious awakenings this early in their career - players who obviously have had actual injuries occur to them that they've retired as a result of those injuries, and there are players who have accrued some level of financial security, but nobody's retired for a proactive reason.
BLOCK: Yeah. Chris Borland is not showing any symptoms, apparently, of neurological damage. But he told ESPN he read a lot, he talked with a bunch of concussion researchers, and he decided that this was the smart thing to do, as he put it, to stop banging his head.
BARNWELL: That's true. And you have a lot of NFL players and a lot of people around the NFL who have come out and supported Chris Borland. There really has not been a - much in the way of dissent from people who sort of have that old-time mindset that you have to be tough and play through injuries. That's mostly gone from the NFL.
BLOCK: You know, it's worth pointing out here that Chris Borland apparently had just two diagnosed concussions, one way back in the eighth grade playing soccer, another in high school - maybe one more during training camp with the 49ers. The real issue for him, I guess, was all of the sub-concussive hits that are just an intrinsic part of the game of football.
BARNWELL: Right. And not only that, Chris Borland was a player who was undersized. He was a very physical player, but he was someone who had to use every ounce of strength he had and had to use his body in ways that other players simply don't. And I really think he could've had a long career in the NFL if he'd been able to stay healthy and wanted to play in the NFL. But he was definitely someone who was at risk for more concussions just because of his size and the style of football he played.
BLOCK: Does Chris Borland, though, have options that other NFL players might not have? He has said he plans to go back to school, maybe pursue a career in sports management. Is it easier for him to walk away from the game than for some other players who might need the money - might not have many options outside the league?
BARNWELL: I think that makes a lot of sense there. There is definitely some level of flexibility for Chris Borland. He does have a four-year degree from Wisconsin. He can afford to go to school and get his graduate degree. He can afford to pursue different avenues as a professional.
And not only guys who are younger, who maybe don't have the money to go back to school or the experience or the skills necessarily, but guys who have been in the league for seven, eight, nine years who already - they're already beat up and banged up, and they might say well, you know, I can't really go back to school. I'm kind of at the point now where I have to just get as much money as possible and develop some level of financial security for myself and my family before I quit playing football.
BLOCK: Do you see long-term implications for the NFL here, Bill - I mean a number of other players that you might anticipate doing the same thing in a way that would really jeopardize the future of the game or is this an outlier?
BARNWELL: Well, it's sort of going to fall somewhere between those two extremes. I do believe that there will be other players besides Chris Borland who follow the same tack. Players at the beginning of their career, guys who are in college, guys who are now even in high school who may be - had Chris Borland not retired four years from now - might be entering the NFL after having played college football. I really think that's going to happen.
The pool of young men who want to play football, though, is so enormous that I don't know that it's going to foretell the death of football as we know it. I just think there's so many players and so many people who want to play football and who can find the incentives to make that work. But the reality is, I think, that the players who are going to be playing football five, 10, 15, 20 years from now are not going have the same sort of economic comfort that Chris Borland has or the same level of family and financial stability that Chris Borland had when he made his decision. I think it's going to be sort of a more vulnerable game.
BLOCK: Bill Barnwell, thanks so much for talking with us.
BARNWELL: My pleasure. Thanks so much.
BLOCK: Bill Barnwell, staff writer with Grantland. We were talking about the retirement of 49ers linebacker Chris Borland at age 24 out of concern for his safety.
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