When Chris Borland announced his retirement following a stand-out rookie season, just about the entire football community joined together in a collective, "WHAT?" And while that reaction may seem justified, making the decision to retire, stop putting your future health at risk, and leave tens of millions of dollars on the table isn't something to take lightly.
Concussions are serious business. You've heard that by now, probably more than once. But still, many, including guys like Tim Ryan, who said "Patrick Willis retired. Chris Borland quit" just don't get it. The same could be said for when Marvin Lewis commented last October on concussions saying, "We have found that because of the media and things [concussions] seem to linger longer... I don't remember them lingering like they do now."
Concussions certainly don't suddenly linger longer, we just know significantly more about concussions, diagnosing them and treating them than we did when Lewis played the game.
Concussions cause a plethora of negative consequences. "To me, the chance of that happening was more of a negative than the positive that my potential career could be," Borland told ESPN's Outside the Lines. "One instance in particular in camp, when I thought I sustained probably a mild concussions and just played through what football players refer to as a ding or getting your bell rung, and that was the moment when it really went differently for me."
"Maybe I'm wrong and I could play for 10 years and be completely healthy, however, I just don't think it's wise for me," Borland said, "I know this is right for me."
Concussions can cause memory loss, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (which can only be diagnosed postmortem and has been found in more than 100 deceased former NFL players), Dementia Pugilistica (similar to Alzheimer's disease), behavioral changes, depression, suicide and other negative long- and short-term effects. There have been a number of football players whose deaths or suicides have been tied to concussions. Most recently Kosta Karageorge, a football player at Ohio State University joined the too-long list of players including Terry Long, Andre Walters, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau whose lives have been cut short due to concussions.
And, the research shows, that it's not only concussions that can cause brain damage and negative consequences down the line. Subconcussive hits to the head are now proving to do the same, which was part of Borland's thought process in making his decision.
Former Colts and Bengals tight end, Ben Utecht has been one of the most vocal former players to speak out on how concussions have affected his life. If you haven't seen Utecht's testimony from the Senate Special Committee on Aging, you should (jump to 19:35 to hear Utecht speak). He recounts how his brain "became a priority" when he started having memory problems at age 29. "It took losing my mind to care about my mind," Utecht said, which has now become widely quoted around the concussion community - and yes, there is a huge concussion support community on social media.
For Utecht, the reality check came when his best friend began discussing his wedding, and Utecht asked, why wasn't I able to be there? Of course, Utecht was there; he sang at the wedding, but had no recollection of it. His reality check was furthered when he heard his daughter tell their family doctor that at times, she's afraid of her own dad. Utecht is now joining the movement to help bring concussion education to the public and helping to find answers regarding how to make sports safer. Every day, he lives with the consequences that came with playing football - including five seasons in the NFL and a Super Bowl championship with the Colts.
As Jeff Miller, NFL Senior VP of Health and Safety Policy said in a statement today, concussions were down in the NFL in 2014, and they have been steadily declining the last three years. But, that doesn't mean that playing football is safe (though Miller says it's "safer than ever") or that concussions aren't still occurring at an alarming frequency. 123 concussions occurred in the NFL in 2014 (with 5 players experiencing two concussions). The NFL will undoubtedly pat themselves on the back as that number is down from 171 concussions in 2012 and 152 in 2013. But that's still 117 men whose future livelihood will be risked for the sport of football. 117 men who may wake up one day and be unable to remember the games they risked their livelihood for. I'm not arguing for an end to football, far from it, but it's clear to see the consequences the game has on those who love it most.
A.J. Hawk, one of the newest additions to the Bengals joined a host of other NFL players for a panel discussion on concussions, posted today on MMBQ, where he made a great point. "They told us the numbers of concussions are down in the league. Who knows? Reported ones, sure. But that doesn't mean anything to me."
Hawk has it exactly right - the number of reported concussions may be down, but there are still plenty of players - like Borland himself - who have played through a concussion.
To bring it closer to home, players on the Bengals had more reported concussions (10) than any other NFL team in 2014. Cornerback appears to be the most frequent position at which players receive concussion. In 2014, 24 cornerbacks in the NFL had a concussion, with safety landing in second place with 18 concussed players. Those numbers are pretty consistent with those from 2013, when 18 corners were diagnosed with a concussion and 20 safeties.
You may love the game, but would you still love it if it affected your ability to remember your best friend's wedding, or your wife's name, or the birth of your child. Would it make it worth it to wake up in pain or to not be able to make it out of bed some mornings? Those are real possibilities for people who have had even one concussion. That doesn't mean that everyone who has a concussion will experience these consequences, that's far from true. But, one is all it takes for it to become a possibility.
Concussions are, and will continue to be a major issue in the NFL and in sports across the board. No, they likely won't cause the downfall of football, and there will always be guys eager to put their futures on the line for glory and a fat paycheck. But, rather than judge, why don't we respect someone for their decision to do what they believe is right for them.
As Borland said, "It's a unique decision to me... For me it wasn't worth the risk. Not to say it's a certainty, I could be wrong. I hope I'm not, or I hope I am wrong, honestly, but for me it was the right decision."