It’s been two years since Chris Borland hung up his cleats after playing only one season in the National Football League. The former linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers shocked the football world in 2015 when, at the age of 23, he announced his retirement, citing concerns for concussions and the long-term brain damage they can cause.
Borland’s early retirement has become a major story in the ongoing controversy over the frequency of concussions in the NFL. Players who repeatedly suffer these injuries may have a higher risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated hits to the head; the league has been criticized for not doing more to address this issue.
As part of this week’s Conference on World Affairs, Borland was featured alongside Sourav Poddar, director of CU Denver’s sports medicine program in a panel titled “Sports: A Concussion Discussion.”
The talk focused on how people discuss and interpret the recent research regarding concussions, with Borland and Poddar sharing their views on sports and brain injuries.
As both Borland and Poddar were quick to point out, the danger of concussions in football and other sports is not isolated to major hits to the head or instances where symptoms of the injury are obvious. They explained how small, sub-concussive hits can be just as dangerous when suffered frequently over time. These hits are also more likely to go unnoticed by both the players and their doctors. The acute symptoms associated with these hits are often far less obvious and can easily be confused for other medical problems.
The two speakers also spoke extensively about the role football is playing in the national discussion over the issue. Poddar noted how the popularity of the sport has helped bring attention to concussion research, despite similarly high rates of head injuries in other sports like hockey and soccer. Borland agreed, but argued against extending the focus beyond contact sports. While accidents may happen in lower-intensity sports like diving and cycling, he asserted that contact sports remain the most important issue when it comes to concussions.
“The point of football is violence,” Borland said. “There are fundamental differences when we talk about these things.”
Borland also addressed the argument that canceling youth football programs would eliminate the valuable life lessons that come with playing the sport. He countered that this is a false dilemma, since other cultures in which the sport is not as popular have no such problems without it.
Poddar emphasized the importance of data in his research, which Borland verified by telling the story of how his experience in football biased his view on the topic, until alarming statistics finally changed his mind. He explained why claims that the situation is getting better are invalid, with little data supporting them.
The panel concluded with a statement from Borland, which demonstrated his disappointment with the football community’s continued inaction in addressing concussions.“It’s time enough that we should implement some sensible changes,” Borland said. “We don’t have the luxury of time.”
Contact CU Independent Sports Staff Writer Kyle Rini at firstname.lastname@example.org.