Chris Borland and the NFL Concussion Crusade


Remember this date, March 16th, 2015. This is the day someone took a stand.

Chris Borland deserves a standing ovation for what he did. A man who had it all lined up right in front of him. Potential Hall-of-Fame bound San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis announced his retirement, springing Borland into the spotlight as the successor. Borland proved how special he could be last year in his rookie season, and the fame and fortune was staring him right in the face.

One week after Patrick Willis announced his retirement, Borland decided to do the same. This was an extremely surprising bold move from a player entering into just his second season in the NFL.

Former 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis at his retirement speech

Former 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis at his retirement speech

Chris Borland cited long-term health concerns due to head trauma as the reason for his retirement. After extensive research into the NFL epidemic, Borland concluded that it was for his best interest in health to retire from the game. Borland walked away from a ton of money and fame in exchange for long-term health.

How could you fault someone for this decision? It shows incredible maturity for a man his age to make a decision this major. This decision could just be the beginning. This is the first time someone stood up against NFL health concerns to this extent. Most of the time it would be a player at the end of his career, or a player who experienced too much trauma making this decision. Borland being so young and having no real history of head trauma made this decision so drastic.

I think Borland just opened the door for a lot of other NFL players who may have been battling a decision like this. There are a lot of players who are older than Borland, or have had more issues regarding health than him that could use retirement. Sometimes it takes one person to be brave and make the first step for others to be able to do the same.

The NFL’s history regarding head injuries and the long-term effect has been incredibly murky. Despite significant scientific research being presented to the NFL as early as the early 2000s, the NFL has refused to accept these scientific findings and until recently, haven’t tried to make changes.

It may be surprising to some people that the NFL still does not acknowledge that playing football can lead to serious problems later in life due to excessive trauma to the brain.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a condition found on the brain of a large portion of deceased NFL players. Former Pittsburgh Steeler Center Mike Webster had his brain examined by Dr. Bennet Omalu after his death. Omalu found the condition after many tests on the brain. For years the NFL dismissed this research until it just became too much to ignore. It seemed like almost every brain of a former NFL player was showing traces of CTE.

Dr. Bennet Omalu discusses what the NFL's reaction was to his findings

Dr. Bennet Omalu discusses what NFL personnel told him

As of last year, 76 of 79 deceased former NFL players showed CTE on their brain. This includes some of the major stories such as the death of Junior Seau and the murder-suicide involving Jovan Belcher.

Former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau who was diagnosed with CTE

Former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau who was diagnosed with CTE

The NFL’s stance on this issue has been simple. They say that they are interested in looking into this topic and trying to make change, but still refuse to admit that there is a correlation between playing in the NFL and these brain issues. The NFL is basically kicking the can down the road, saying they are researching, but not admitting there is a problem.

Had the NFL accepted this research earlier, a lot of lives could have potentially been saved. As the NFL continues to spend money on the technology to create safer equipment, as well as institute new rules to avoid as many major hits as possible, the game becomes much safer. There is only so much that can be done in a game that requires a high level of physicality.

This compares the brain of a normal 65-year old (left), the brain of former NFL player John Grimsley who died at age 45, and the brain of a 73-year old former boxer. The brown spots represent tau proteins, a signifier of CTE

This compares the brain of a normal 65-year old (left), the brain of former NFL player John Grimsley who died at age 45, and the brain of a 73-year old former boxer. The brown spots represent tau proteins, a signifier of CTE

There is a reason a lot of these people decide to play the game. The monetary value may be worth the risk for some. I have the utmost respect for a man like Chris Borland to choose health over fame and money. His decision will be a major piece in the history of the NFL and these health related issues.