American Football: A Modern Day Bloodsport?

Chris Borland, a linebacker and key player for the San Francisco 49ers, announced this week that he was retiring from the Pros. Players retire from football everyday so what makes this announcement so unusual? Borland is only 24, just starting his second year in professional football, and he is walking away from a $3 million payday. What is the motivation for this decision? Borland fears the eventual onset of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE.)

Junior Seau, a former New England Patriot star, was one of the most celebrated defensemen to play the game of football in the last 30 years. Paul Oliver was a long term defensive back for the San Diego Chargers. Ray Easterling was a starting safety for the Atlanta Falcons for eight years. Shane Dronett also played for Atlanta as well as the Detroit Lions and the Denver Broncos. Besides playing in the NFL, all four of these players had two other traits in common – they all showed signs of CTE and they all committed suicide.

Dave Duerson played safety for the Chicago Bears, the New York Giants, and the Phoenix Cardinals between 1983 and 1993. He was chosen to play in four consecutive Pro Bowl games during his career. At age 50, Duerson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Duerson, like Seau, shot himself in the chest instead of his head so his brain could be used for research. At his request, Duerson’s family donated his brain to the Boston University School of Medicine to be used for CTE research. Neurologists at Boston University confirmed that Duerson had suffered from CTE and it was a result of the many concussions he suffered during his playing career.

In 2014, a Federal judge in Philadelphia ruled on the class action lawsuit brought by 4500 former NFL players against the league. They brought suit against the league for failure to prevent the ongoing problem of serious head injuries. Initially, the former players were awarded $765 million, but that judgement was overturned due to concern that the funds would not be enough to protect all 18,000 former NFL players. A final settlement is still being negotiated.

CTE is defined as a form of encephalopathy. This a progressively degenerative disease which can only be definitively diagnosed after the victim has died. It is often seen in individuals with a history of multiple concussions and head injuries. These are same types of concussions and head injuries football players suffer repeatedly, probably from the time they started playing as youngsters.

There are a number of conditions that have been traced to multiple head injuries and concussions like those experienced by football players every day. Besides CTE, higher incidences of ALS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and dementia have been observed in former football players than is seen in the general population. CTE also causes severe chronic pain and depression. Though no professional players have ever died on the playing field, there are numerous incidents over the years of players being seriously injured and dying on and off the field from head injuries in youth/Pop Warner leagues as well as high school and college games.

The NFL has always taken the stance that player safety is one of their most important considerations. Player safety is just one of the numerous issues being discussed that are related to the long term survival of the NFL. In addition to player safety, one of the NFL’s main concerns is the changing dynamics of the US population. As the Latino and Asian populations continue their dramatic rise in the US, many potential football fans and players are much more interested in soccer than in American football. Another major worry is, with the increasing number of injuries and the continuing research into problems like CTE in the spotlight, many families in America have decided not to allow their children to participate in contact sports like football. As a result, all around enthusiasm for the sport may be in danger. And the recent retirement of Borland, as well as 26-year-old Jake Locker and 30-year-old Patrick Willis, starters and stars in their own right, is adding fuel to the fire for those who worry about the long term health of football players and football in general.

Football is a brutal, violent sport. In some ways, it’s a modern day version of the blood sports of ancient Rome. Of course, the men and women who competed in the games at the Coliseum and other arenas in the Roman Empire were expected to die from their participation. Modern day football players are not. It’s up to the NFL, and by their example, the youth, high school, and college programs across the country to reassess the safety aspects of the game. They need to find a way to prevent head injuries from happening to players on all levels. Unsolved, injury problems will lead to fear and a lack of participation by new players. And a lack of participation will spark a lack of talent which will steadily drain the NFL’s fan base. No fans, no money, no league. Without significant changes, football may well be destined to become another “ancient blood sport” that ended up on the athletic junk pile of history.

So hats off, or in this case helmets off, to Chris Borland and all the other young pro football players who decide their ongoing health is more important than their current big paycheck and luxurious lifestyle. It takes a lot of courage to walk away from money and fame. And it takes a lot of pain, depression, and despair to make someone take their own life. Hopefully, Borland will never regret his decision as he enjoys a long, healthy life, mentally and physically.