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Alexander has been contributing for THS for over a year! While he attained a major in communications at SFU, he also recieved a minor in Psychology. Despite those accomplishments, Alex has also never had a full cup of coffee (crazy right?!). Alex is a lifelong sports fan and will defend his Seattle Seahawks to the death, especially if faced against a 49er fan. While Alex's long-term goal is to become a marriage counsellor, he also has a strong passion towards writing that he looks forward to exploring.

Before It’s Too Late: A Precautionary Tale on Concussions

Photo by: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

On March 10th, 2015, Patrick Willis retired from the National Football League. Willis, an 8x All-Pro had missed a significant portion of the 2014 season with ‘turf toe’. Despite the belief that he would return, his injury helped him realize that football was not worth the long-term pain that can plague a life post-retirement. Willis’ story is far from unique, albeit seemingly early in his hall-of-fame storied career. Injuries have derailed countless careers and continue to do-so. The real shock came on March 17th, 2015 when his replacement: Rookie of the Year Chris Borland retired, or as some people state ‘quit’ on the game of football as well. Borland would have been a monumental cog for the San Francisco 49’ers but his retirement is unlike any other that has hit the NFL.

Borland, at the age of 24, stated that the game ‘was not worth it’ and retired openly citing a fear of brain-related trauma. Borland’s decision was one of precaution, and not a reaction to a longer career such as Willis. In the process, Borland makes us question the impact of brain-related trauma and it’s role on the league and future players regardless of their injury history. His retirement comes on the heels of a report released on January 30th stating that concussions were down by 13% in the NFL this past year.

Yet despite the decrease in the past year, concussions will always be a concern in any major sport. Borland’s retirement cited the fear of concussions but also raised questions to how strictly the league looks at the concussion protocol and if some concussions (such as one suffered by Borland) go under-reported.  While the league has been under-fire as of late for concussion related issues, Borland marks the first current player to retire openly because of potential brain concerns. In his career spanning only one year, he never recorded an official NFL concussion. His actions, deemed courageous by many, has opened the door to social discussion on what athletes go through for their paycheck and asks the ultimate question that is now on the tongue of every major media source: Is it all worth it? Concussions are not new to the NFL. However, what is new is the information coming out about the long-term implications of such brain injuries years after retirement.

In 2014, more than 4,500 former players filed a lawsuit against the NFL for issues related to cognitive brain damage. The lawsuit looked at the state of some former players, as well as attacked the league for not informing players of the potential brain ramifications. The lawsuit ended up being settled for $765 million with only 10 million being spent towards future concussion studies.

The players in the lawsuit ranging from smaller names, to Super Bowl MVP Jim McMahon represent a scary trend of players suffering long-term disorders as a result of their time on the field. It has always been accepted that players give their body for this sport. Nobody enters the NFL without knowing that walking might not be so easy in 20 years as Patrick Willis may realize but thinking? Thinking and brain components was unheard of 20 years ago. Concussions were something to just “shake off” and throw the guy some smelling salts, for after all, these guys are warriors and it’s go-time! The physical and relentless nature of the sport however has led some some, like McMahon with early on-set dementia as a result of the constant trauma. A study released in September pointed out how 30% of athletes will suffer from either dementia or Alzheimers in their lifetime. This is significantly higher than the general population. It asks the question of if these players knew what they were giving up 20 years ago, would they still have gone out there? In Borland’s case the answer would have been a resounding no.

Click to enlarge: An infographic explaining the increasing risk football players face. [Photo Credit: Brain Injury Law Center]

Other individuals such as Junior Seau are a startling realization of the struggles of living with brain-related trauma. Seau played 19 years in the NFL and like Patrick Willis, was a multiple time all-pro. However within 4 years of retirement, Seau had taken his own life. He shot himself in the chest, a deliberate action to try and preserve his brain in order for it to be studied and learned from. It was found that Seau suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalophathy (CTE), a disorder that is caused due to multiple blows to the head and can lead to depression. NFL Legend Dave Duerson also suffered from CTE, and was mentioned specifically by Borland as a reason to leave the game that Borland described, could one day kill you. Seau leaving his brain for science is an increasing trend among athletes to hopefully raise awareness. Most recently punter Steve Weatherford and former wide receiver Sidney Rice came out in March stating that they will donate their brains to science in order to hopefully raise information for the younger generation of athletes.

Borland’s story is perhaps all the scarier because of the leagues overall attitude towards concussions. While the league is taking preventative measures, such as penalizing teams for shots to the head, the overall culture of the locker room has seemingly not changed. Borland took solace in the book ‘League of Denial’ which talks about the brain damage associated with the NFL. Yet despite reading the book during the last few weeks of the season, he kept this a secret from his teammates. Borland claimed “You can’t be in the locker room reading League of Denial,” further perpetuating the belief that while concussions are prominent in football it is best just not to think about it. This is where the real shift emerges between retiring from an injury (like Willis) and retiring because you are afraid of your brain being rattled around. No NFL player will say they won’t play after 1 year because they might tear their ACL or suffer physical ailments, even if that risk is always there.

Borland is also unique in the sense that while he retired, this was not due to repeated significant concussive blows. He stated that he feels as ‘normal’ as ever, but it is that normalcy that reminds him that he can still get out of the game before it is too late.

Other athletes such as Javhid Best, a former running back for the Lions was not so lucky. Best, a prominent runner in college, battled concussions throughout his career before ultimately retiring. Best has not played since 2011, but after 3 concussions in 2 seasons is still feeling the ramifications from the game. He filed a separate lawsuit in 2014 against the league citing that the league knew about head injuries but did not do enough to prevent them. Best will hopefully not be representative of a trend of former athletes forced to retire because of concussions and never being able to get their normal life back.

Borland openly suggested parents push their kids towards other sports, trying to reduce the amount of head blows suffered at a young-age. For many athletes, football is the sport they choose to play, not their only sport. Jimmy Graham is known for playing basketball, ‘Neon Deion Sanders’ played two sports (MLB and NFL) and it starts asking the question of why would someone choose football? When the money is all but guaranteed in baseball, there is both a financial and mental gain to shying away from the game of football. Yet the player’s passion for the game outweighs any injury ramifications. For every NFL player to retire, there are hundreds in college waiting for their shot. So while the popularity may not wane any time soon, Borland is helping create a league of more informed players. However for those that do choose the game of football, the league needs to do a stronger job of enforcing their protocols on recognizing when someone is concussed.

Chris Borland was more fortunate than players like Best who had their careers derailed and future uncertain after concussions. Yet that does not mean that Borland did not play through them. It was in a practice during pre-season that he got dinged up, and despite feeling a concussion, battled through and did not report it. Borland’s pressure could have come from the fact that he was a 3rd round pick, fighting hard to make a roster spot. When your money is contingent on getting on the field (and not guaranteed like in baseball) there may be that greater pressure to perform. While the league is trying to cut down on in-game concussions, there are still examples worth outlining of their failure to do-so both from the past and most recently in the Super Bowl.

Borland would not be the first person to stay on the field despite being concussed. Scott Fujitas is a former linebacker for the New Orleans Saints and spent 10 years in the NFL.  Fujita’s has come out within the last week in support of Borland’s decision stating how tough of a decision it was and how common concussions can be. Despite suffering a significant concussion in 2010 during a Super Bowl, Fujitas  did not say anything and remained in the game. This was in 2010, and since then the league has attempted to prevent players from returning to the game if they are potentially concussed. Doctors stay on the sideline, players often need to go to the locker-room and if there are any signs of concussion then the player is taken out.

This is far from a perfect system however. It was during this past Super Bowl that Seahawks, defensive end Cliff Avril, was taken out because of a concussion. Avril’s concussion was hard to pin-point, and occurred on a routine play. Julian Edeleman in contrast, a wide receiver for the Patriots was chastised by some for playing the rest of the game when he seemed ‘woozy’ on the field following a hit by Kam Chancellor. Edelman claims he passed a concussion protocol but in an interview conducted after the game, refused to state that he was not concussed: only that he passed protocol.  Players are taught to be tough, but whether the concussion occurs in the biggest or the smallest game the procedures need to be the same.

The question in the NFL has now started to shift. It is no longer how serious are concussions, but is it all worth it knowing the potential long-lasting or fatal damages. Players get compensated well for their efforts, but the average NFL career is still only 3.5 years. Those 3.5 years, those bubble guys, those are the ones running through concussions like Borland did in pre-season, only they didn’t make it all the way. Prior to Seau’s suicide, he was widely regarded as one of the best linebackers in football. Seau worked hard and earned a lucrative living but it was all gone within 4 years. Yet if he got the option of retiring after 10 years, not 19, would he still be here?

When you are battling the game between your health or your money, how is your health an option? For these guys, for many, they may not have any other choice. Borland was a prominent athlete who loved football, but when given the choice to walk away, he did partially because he had the option to. Borland’s family was middle-class, he made some income off of his signing bonus and is now hoping to return to school. For other athletes, football is all they know.  It can be the game to pull you from your lower-class lifestyle. It can be how you support your family, how you earn your scholarship so you can actually go to college. Football is for many players, their entire identity and has been since they were very young. To not play football, is to go against everything they have ever wanted. Yet for many the game is an escape as much as it is a coffin. However unlike 20 years ago with the Jim McMahon’s and Junior Seau’s of the world, ignorance or denial is now no longer an excuse.

Those individuals in the lawsuit, people like Best, are going after the NFL because they feel they held information back. How does the league look now when everyone knows just how serious concussions can be? What happens when those bubble athletes start picking MLB over the NFL? Borland may have sat in the locker-room, lights dimmed as he reads ‘league of denial’ learning about the ramifications of the sport he loves. But the lights are now up and the denial can only go so far.

Chris Borland helped bring the discussion to light in a new way and in a way that could have long-lasting change towards both protocols and the player’s attitude. The truth is becoming clearer about what this sport takes away and you can’t help but commend someone at the cusp of greatness, bowing out to save his mind.

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