Borland’s retirement reignites concussion debate

Chris Borland’s decision to walk away from the San Francisco 49ers last week once again brought the age-old debate surrounding concussions back into the sporting consciousness. To see an athlete, after just one year, and aged only 24, walk away from a professional sport is both surprising and a reminder of the detrimental impact contact sports can have on the health of those who play them.

The linebacker’s decision was met with bemusement from some who could not fathom why a talented individual, with a whole career in the lucrative NFL ahead of him, would turn his back on the game.

Perhaps this caught fans and experts off guard considering Borland put up impressive numbers in his rookie season and was also in contention for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year honours.

However, there have been many who commended Borland’s decision and believe his bold call will ultimately benefit the sporting world in the long run by encouraging others to put their long term health before sporting success. Concussions are nothing new, but perhaps our changing attitudes are, particularly with regards to the aforementioned health implications once sporting stars walk away into the sunset at the end of their careers.

Borland himself admitted it was a fear of the effects of the rough and tumble nature of the NFL that made his mind up, rather than as an immediate result of concussions he has suffered himself. He isn’t the first NFL player to walk away from the game due to health concerns. Former Detroit Lions running back Jahvid Best had a chequered history with concussions, and saw his career cut short after failing to recover from a concussion sustained in 2011, eventually announcing his retirement in 2013 at the age of just 24, the same age as Borland. The only difference, of course, was that Borland walked away on his own terms.

It is not just in the NFL where this is an issue, all too often in the past this has been swept under the proverbial carpet elsewhere too. Concussions are prevalent in most contact sports, notably in Boxing, Rugby and Football. Cast your minds back to the vast condemnation of Tottenham’s actions to allow goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to return to the field having been knocked out during a game in November 2013. This is an issue we’ve often been reluctant to address, but is increasingly becoming pertinent. Earlier generations of footballers who had to play with a heavier, leather encased football were long thought to be compromising their health by heading the ball, something brought to our attentions all too vividly with the premature death of former West Bromwich Albion forward Jeff Astle back in 2002 from degenerative brain disease, since attributed to repetitive head trauma.

In the aftermath of the Lloris incident, clubs are now forced to make a substitution if a player is knocked out and are now becoming increasingly encouraged to do so if a player shows symptoms of concussion. Similarly, protocols have been in place for some time now in the NFL, but what the Borland case illustrates, is a greater recognition of the problem of head injuries and a willingness to prevent them in the first place.

The work done by groups like the Jeff Astle Foundation, set up to help other ex-footballers who find themselves in similar circumstances to the late Astle, cannot be underestimated. Some may argue it’s a part of the game and difficult to eliminate, and they’d be right, but what we must do is put measures in place to continue to raise the awareness and try to prevent this where possible.

Borland’s retirement sets a precedent. It is a surprise without question, but perhaps, above all else, it’s refreshing to see someone value his long term health over the lucrative nature of professional sports and walk away while they still have the chance.

Photograph: Steve (CC-BY-2.0)

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