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Chris Borland Retires From NFL Over Concussion Fears: ‘I Don’t Think It’s Worth The Risk’

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Chris Borland, a 24-year-old linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, announced this week his retirement from professional football, citing his concerns about health risks associated with concussions sustained in the sport. 

“I just thought to myself, ‘What am I doing?’” Borland told ESPN’s Outside The Lines on Monday. “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?”

He went on: “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.” He also noted that he hasn’t experienced any cognitive changes — “I’m as sharp as I’ve ever been,” he said — but he wants to take action before symptoms come on.

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Tre Mason of the St. Louis Rams is tackled by Antoine Bethea and Chris Borland of the San Francisco 49ers during a game at Levi’s Stadium on November 2, 2014 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The NFL’s vice president of health and safety policy Jeff Miller issued a statement in response to Borland’s retirement: 

We respect Chris Borland’s decision and wish him all the best. Playing any sport is a personal decision. By any measure, football has never been safer and we continue to make progress with rule changes, safer tackling techniques at all levels of football, and better equipment, protocols and medical care for players. Concussions in NFL games were down 25 percent last year, continuing a three-year downward trend. We continue to make significant investments in independent research to advance the science and understanding of these issues. We are seeing a growing culture of safety. Everyone involved in the game knows that there is more work to do and player safety will continue to be our top priority.

Indeed, the NFL has seen a drop in reported concussions over the years. PBS Frontline data showed that there were 171 concussions in 2012, 152 in 2013, and 115 in 2014 in the regular seasons, The Denver Post reported

Related: How Healthy Is Your Brain? Take This Test to Find Out

The NFL’s concussion protocol requires injured players to go through a five-step process before they’re allowed to return to the field. For the first step, the player must rest and neurocognitive testing is performed so that cognitive performance can be compared with a pre-season baseline. A team doctor or a neuropsychology consultant must give the all-clear before the player can begin light aerobic exercise, which is step two of the protocol. Steps three, four, and five involve reintroducing strength and aerobic exercise and football-specific activities to the player’s exercise regimen, before he is allowed to resume his regular activity. 

Despite the NFL’s precautions and the lower reported concussion numbers, fears remain. “There are a lot of unknowns,” Borland, who was in his rookie season with San Francisco, said. “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.”

Former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Sidney Rice also retired from the NFL last year after seven years in the league due to health concerns, including concussions and blackouts after bad hits. He told CBS News he was particularly moved by former NFL player Tony Dorsett’s story. (Dorsett, a Hall of Fame running back, was diagnosed with signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in 2013 — a condition that has been linked with head trauma.) 

“You have these guys that have been going to the same house for 25 years. And all of the sudden they get to a certain point on their way home and they have to call their wives to get the directions home,” Rice, who wasn’t showing signs of post-concussion disorder upon his retirement, told CBS News. “So that is something that really hit home for me after having experienced so many concussions.” 

Related: How To Overcome Depression After A Sports Injury

William Barr, PhD, the director of neuropsychology at the NYU Langone Concussion Center (as well as a former neuropsychological consultant with the New York Jets football team), called Borland’s decision a “bold move.” 

“He is walking away from a lot of money, a lot of fame, a lot of things that people work their whole lives for. You’ve got to admire that, that he’s got the courage to do that,” Barr, who has not examined Borland or been involved in his medical care, tells Yahoo Health. “On the other side of it though, is this something that going to cause parents to stop [having their kids] play sports? I think that would be a big mistake.” 

Barr adds that a lot of research on the definitive long-term risks of concussions is actually not yet conclusive. What is known is that people who are going into a season having sustained three or more concussions, are four times more likely to experience another concussion during that season, he notes. And they will have a slightly longer course of recovery compared with people who hadn’t had three or more concussions in the past. 

There are signs that concussions can lead to significant health problems, like CTE, but the problem is that there are no prospective longitudinal studies showing how exactly CTE develops from these concussions — and who might particularly be at risk, Barr says. 

We see that “some players have this unusual pathology, but the sampling for … these cases are post-mortem,” and are only ones that have come to public attention, he says. What’s needed is a study where we “take everyone playing football right now, get all the measures on how they’re doing, and then study them for the next 50 years and see what happens. As you might imagine, that would answer the question [of whether concussions cause CTE], but those are hard to do.” 

Symptoms of a concussion include sleep problems, thinking problems, headache, balance issues, noise and light sensitivity, and emotional disturbances. More serious complications associated with concussion include seizures, depression, mild cognitive impairment, and, as previously mentioned, CTE.

CTE is a degenerative brain disease that research has linked to concussions and repeated trauma to the brain. The brain degeneration is associated with a number of symptoms, including aggression, depression, impulse control issues, confusion, memory loss, judgment problems, and progressive dementia. 

The condition has been known to occur in boxers since the 1920s, according to the Boston University CTE Center, but it’s only come to light as a potential health risk for professional football players in recent years. The high-profile suicides of Dave Duerson and Junior Seau were linked to CTE, after doctors examined their brains after their deaths and found that they had the disease. (Because both men had shot themselves in the heart, their brains were able to be analyzed by researchers after their deaths.) 

 Related: Concussion Diagnosis Could Take Under 2 Minutes With This Easy Test