Chris Borland is the most recent player to walk away from the National Football League while still in his 20s, and his decision – based on concern about long-term brain trauma – was applauded by many of his peers.
Borland, 24, said on Monday that he decided to leave the NFL after one season because it’s not worth the risk. Borland told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” he wanted to be proactive, that he was worried if he waited until he had any signs of repetitive head trauma, it would be too late.
Borland’s retirement comes after quarterback Jake Locker, 26, defensive end Jason Worilds, 27, and running back Maurice Jones-Drew, 29, left the game in recent weeks to pursue other interests. Borland had 108 tackles in 14 games as a rookie with the San Francisco 49ers and was poised to take over as a full- time starting linebacker in 2015. Yet he said he’s more focused on the years afterward.
“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,” said Borland, a history major at Wisconsin who received a $617,000 guaranteed signing bonus in the four-year, $2.9 million contract he signed with the 49ers.
St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long, the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long and the second overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft, said he can’t fault Borland.
“His concerns are real,” Long wrote on Twitter. “Still it takes a man to do the logical.”
Donte Stallworth, 34, who played receiver for six teams over 10 NFL seasons, said players today are more concerned than ever about brain trauma and their health. Stallworth said on his Twitter account that it’s unnerving to go through an NFL season and witness multiple players knocked unconscious.
“It’s extremely difficult when you’re living your dream of playing in the NFL as a 20-something to contemplate what life could be like at 50,” said Stallworth, who spent last season as a wide receivers coach with the Baltimore Ravens.
Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety policy, said in a statement Tuesday that the league respects Borland’s choice and that playing any sport is a personal decision. Miller also noted that concussions in NFL games were down 25 percent last year – continuing a three-year downward trend – and that there’s a growing culture of safety in the league, with significant investment in researching and understanding issues such as brain trauma.
Jed York, the 49ers’ chief executive officer, said the team was surprised, but respected Borland’s decision.
“If he fears for his health and safety going forward, I don’t ever want somebody going out there and doing something they’re not comfortable doing,” York said Tuesday on Bloomberg Television.
The NFL’s $765 million settlement with former players over concussions was blocked in February by a federal judge in Philadelphia who said the league should expand payment for some claims made by the more than 5,000 players who sued the NFL seeking damages for head injuries.
Sidney Rice was 27 when he walked away from the NFL after winning a Super Bowl title in 2014 with the Seattle Seahawks.
Rice said his retirement was prompted by health concerns and that he suffered more than 10 concussions over his seven- year career. He said he would occasionally black out after particularly hard hits. Rice earlier this month announced a plan to donate his brain after his death to help further research on head trauma as it relates to NFL players.
“I had my first concussion as a child in little league football, and not realizing how it could affect me, I got back up and continued playing,” Rice said. “It’s now more important than ever to educate others, both athletes and non-athletes, about the importance of brain health.”
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by repeated head hits, has been found in the autopsies of several former NFL players who killed themselves, including 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau. Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett is among the former players who have been diagnosed with evidence of a progressive brain disease caused by head trauma and linked to dementia, ESPN has reported.
It’s not just brain trauma that’s chased some players out of the game while still in their prime.
Former New York Giants running back David Wilson retired from football in August at age 23 after doctors advised him that playing again after a neck injury could permanently threaten his health. Wilson, a 2012 first-round pick, had a herniated disc in his neck and vertebrae fusion surgery.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, a five-time NFL Most Valuable Player who turns 39 next week, had similar surgery and returned after missing the 2011 season.
Locker, the eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft, said he no longer had the “burning desire” needed to play the game professionally in announcing his retirement. Locker, who appeared in 30 games for the Tennessee Titans over the past four seasons, said he’s looking forward to spending more time with his family and pursuing other interests.
Worilds also said he had other plans after totaling 15 1/2 sacks for the Pittsburgh Steelers the past two seasons. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Worilds was quitting football to work for his religion, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and NFL.com said he was probably walking away from $15 million in guaranteed NFL salary.
“With all the information players have at hand – from teams, agents, their families – now you can make an informed, intelligent decision if you want to play,” said ESPN analyst Rod Woodson, whose Hall of Fame career spanned 17 NFL seasons.
Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Beau Allen, who was a rookie last season and played with Borland at Wisconsin, commended his former college teammate’s decision.
“At the end of the day there are bigger things than the game of football,” Allen said on his Twitter account, followed by the hashtag “priorities.”
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