NFL Linebacker Chris Borland’s recent decision was a brave one; he walked away from a $3 million contract over the issue of concussions.

Last August, the 24-year old Borland was just starting out as a rookie linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers. During his first training camp he suffered a concussion. But he continued to play through the day and through the rookie season. Even so, the issue of concussion kept bothering him and he began researching the data. He found plenty, enough to change his mind about a career in football.

 

Last week, after announcing his retirement, he gave the following statement to an ESPN reporter:

“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. I’m concerned that if you wait until you have symptoms, it’s too late.”

Borland’s decision shows a new way of thinking about brain injuries. By now, professional athletes are aware that a number of retired NFL players who suffered concussions went on to experience memory loss and a range of cognitive problems that include dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, depression and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Despite what Borland learned about concussions, it was still a hard decision. He loves the game, he’s good at it and he was on his way to a multi-million dollar career. Still, he said retirement was the right decision in the end.

Last August, right when Borland suffered the concussion, thousands of former NFL players and their families reached a deal in a class-action law suit. That win forced the NFL to cover the costs of concussion-related compensation. The rationale that tipped the scale in favor of the players alleged that the NFL deliberately misled players about concussions and their risk to player’s health.

Nobody is sure what comes next. Will more players follow Borland and step away from professional sports? Even Borland isn’t calling for that. But he did state that young athletes and their parents should begin now, to learn more about concussions and their potential to negatively impact the health of young players.

As an avid sports fan and also emergency physician certified in concussion management, I have mixed feelings about his decision. It makes sense for him at this point in his life and I respect and support him. From a “concussion guy” perspective, I am glad that he has helped push the discussion forward about traumatic head injuries in professional sports. Another celebrity announced some startling news. Angelina Jolie, after having both her breasts removed to decrease the chance of breast cancer, has had both her ovaries removed to decrease the risk of ovarian cancer. She felt it was the right action for her given her family history and risk factors. Whether it be to stop playing a sport, or preventative surgery, there will always be risks and benefits to any decision. In this case both parties felt there was too much risk to continue their current courses. Their decisions are not for everyone, but they definitely furthered the discussion.

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