The most surprising thing about Chris Borland's retirement from professional football isn't that he's leaving. It's how quickly fans and fellow players seem to have accepted Borland's decision—a sign of how swiftly the consensus has shifted on head injuries in football, and a worrying sign for the NFL.
Borland told ESPN Monday that rather than suit up for a sophomore season, he's stepping away from the game. The San Francisco 49ers linebacker, a Wisconsin graduate and third-round draft pick in 2014, had a strong rookie season, racking up stats in an injury-shortened season and earning a vote for defensive player of the year. And with the Niners losing the All-Pro Patrick Willis to retirement, Borland was a big part of the team's 2015-2016 plans.
"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," he told ESPN. "I feel largely the same, as sharp as I've ever been. For me, it's wanting to be proactive. I'm concerned that if you wait 'til you have symptoms, it's too late."
That makes him, in ESPN's words, "the most prominent NFL player to leave the game in his prime because of concerns about brain injuries." But he isn't the only one to do so. While there hasn't been a mad rush for the exits, more and more pro players seem rattled by the suicides of former stars like Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, and Ray Easterling. In 2012, the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, then drove to a Chiefs facility and killed himself. Tests determined that all four had evidence of CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease found in people with repeated head trauma and concussion—like, for example, linemen. Duerson committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest so his brain could be analyzed for damage.