Chris Borland retires: What can NFL do about its concussion problem?

Chris Borland, a promising young linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, has retired after one season because of concussion concerns. The problem is perhaps the biggest threat to the NFL's status as America's most popular sports league.

Tony Avelar/AP/File
San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker Chris Borland (50) tackles Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris (46) during the second half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., on Nov. 23, 2014. The 49ers announced Monday that Borland is retiring after one season.

The National Football League now officially has a Chris Borland problem.

The Chris Borland problem is not about a man who knocked out his wife or who beat his son with a switch. Instead, it is about a thoughtful 24-year-old linebacker who looked at what the sport was asking him to do week in, week out, and decided that it simply wasn't worth the risk.

On Monday, Borland announced that after just one year of professional football, he was retiring because of concerns that he could do serious and long-term damage to his brain by continuing to play.

"I just thought to myself, 'What am I doing? 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?' " Borland told ESPN's "Outside the Lines."

Left behind is a promising career that looked to bring no small amount of adulation and perhaps even more money. The leading tackler for the San Francisco 49ers last season as a rookie, Borland is likely forgoing tens of millions of dollars. 

It is a stunning example of how deeply concerns over concussions have begun to shift the landscape surrounding the NFL. Many parents are already wary of letting their children play football, polls and data show. Now, those concerns appear to be percolating to the highest level of the sport, even for a player who had never been diagnosed with a concussion in his professional career.

Borland is just the latest – and the youngest – of players to announce their retirement this off-season. Fellow San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis, a seven-time All Pro player, announced he would retire rather than risk additional injury just days before Borland. Players with the St. Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans, and Pittsburgh Steelers also have called it quits.

Studies have established a compelling link between repeated head trauma among football players and degenerative brain conditions that lead to violence and depression. The brains of 76 of 79 deceased NFL players studied by scientists showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Columnist Andrew Sullivan has gone so far as to wonder if the NFL is the next Big Tobacco. "So a lucrative industry knowingly destroys the health of the people it makes money off – and keeps the evidence hidden from them. Sound familiar?" he writes in a 2012 blog.

The question is: In such an inherently violent sport, what can the NFL do?

Some players and observers suggest that the NFL has made progress in recent years by penalizing "devastating hits" in an attempt to take them out of the game. The league says concussions declined by 25 percent this season.

But the application can be inconsistent. Take New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, who was allowed to continue playing on football's biggest stage – the Super Bowl – despite looking dazed and disoriented after a big hit this year.

"Perhaps what looked like concussion symptoms were the normal results of football’s brutality, but every second that he remained in the game not only reflected badly on football on its biggest night of the year but also put Edelman in danger," wrote the New Yorker's Ian Crouch.

The NFL's Competition Committee is currently considering a proposal to allow "medical timeouts," in which an independent third-party would have the authority to stop the game and force a player to take a concussion test.

Technology, too, can help. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery found that newer versions of helmets reduced the risk of concussion for players on eight college teams by 54 percent. One next-generation prototype helmet has a light that flashes when it absorbs a dangerous hit; another has a built-in sensor.

But larger cultural changes might be needed. Some 83 percent of parents have considered keeping their children from playing football because of injuries, according to an espnW/Aspen Institute survey. Indeed, youth participation in Pop Warner football declined by 9.5 percent between 2010 and 2012, the largest two-year decline recorded by the organization, according to ESPN.

But those number might hide a more nuanced trend: Income plays a big role in perceptions of how safe football is, with higher-income parents less likely to want their children to play football, a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found.

Some parents who still support youth football say they've seen a change in how the sport is taught, with more emphasis on safe tackling techniques.

"I think that it's something you can definitely see in how the younger kids are playing versus how the older boys are playing football, because it's a whole different way of playing,” Amanda Rodriguez, a mom of three in Frederick, Md., told CNN. "So I feel safer knowing that my kids are playing in a league that is doing something proactive about their safety."

Ms. Rodriguez doesn't see the dangers of football as disproportionately high.

"The risk is there, but the reward is so great, it's a risk that we take and, statistically, I don't think … that risk [rivals] things like riding in a car or riding your bike."

After doing his own research during the off-season, Borland came to the opposite conclusion.

For him, both the risk and the reward were undeniably greater. Now, the NFL must also weigh the potential risks and rewards of how to go forward.

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