One year ago this week, Chris Borland, a 24-year-old budding defensive star for the San Francisco 49ers, retired after just his rookie season in the NFL. Borland wasn’t the first professional football player to retire early, but he was the first to publicly attribute his decision to the ongoing discourse about the dangers of football and its links to brain trauma and the degenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
“I’m concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it’s too late,” he said at the time. “There are a lot of unknowns. I can’t claim that X will happen. I just want to live a long healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise.”
One outlet that reported Borland’s story was NFL.com, pro football’s equivalent to Pravda, in an article with the suspiciously vague headline “San Francisco 49ers' Chris Borland retiring from NFL.” It included this rebuttal from Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety policy:
Playing any sport is a personal decision. By any measure, football has never been safer and we continue to make progress with rule changes, safer tackling techniques at all levels of football, and better equipment, protocols and medical care for players. Concussions in NFL games were down 25 percent last year, continuing a three-year downward trend.
This defensive line of patter was later echoed by Joseph Maroon, the team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a consultant for the NFL’s sinister-sounding Head, Neck, and Spine Committee. On NFL Total Access, the flagship program on the league-owned NFL Network channel, Maroon offered:
When an athlete is fearful of any injury, it’s time to get out. You can’t play with apprehension in any sport and be as good as you can [be] and he obviously came to that conclusion by himself.
In other words, all sports are dangerous and Borland was afraid.