Shock NFL retirement sends a message

Date published: March 17 2015

Chris Borland, an NFL linebacker on the cusp of stardom, retired from the sport on Monday at the age of 24. Why? Concerns over his long-term health because of concussion.

To be clear, Borland hasn't been forced to retire on medical grounds. He enjoyed a breakout season in 2014 with the San Francisco 49ers, leading the team in tackles after being drafted in the third round last year.

Borland was in contention for the Defensive Rookie of the Year and received high acclaim after stepping in for the injured Patrick Willis, an eight-year veteran and one of the best linebackers in the NFL during that time.

Having filled in so successfully Borland was expected to take up the role left by Willis on a permanent basis in 2015 after the veteran confirmed his own retirement last week.

Borland would follow in his footsteps to become one of the league's top defensive players and a key leader for the 49ers. He could have made millions and millions of dollars – far more than most professional rugby players will ever come close to dreaming about.

His decision to turn all of that down for the sake of his long-term health is staggering. Not because of what Borland has passed up on, but the immense courage and clarity that takes for a professional athlete on the verge of greatness at the age of 24. He has made the choice when so many others would never consider it, prefering to "tough it out".

Borland has suffered two concussions in his lifetime, playing soccer aged 13-14 and a few years later in high school. He believes another occured during training camp with the 49ers last season, when he was trying to impress after being drafted, so he played through it. Speaking to ESPN, Borland said:

"I just thought to myself, 'What am I doing? Is this how I'm going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I've learned and knew about the dangers?'

"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."

Borland met with concussion experts and weighed up his love of the game and the financial benefits of being an NFL star versus his health for the rest of his life, and went with the latter in a personal sacrifice that could be a guiding light for any sportsman with the same concerns.

The NFL is leagues ahead of rugby in terms of it's concussion awareness and treatments, down to larger financial resources, and more often tthan not it takes a high-profile case such as the unfortunate mishandling of George North in this year's opening Six Nations game for action to be taken or vows to be made.

North for example has suffered two concussions within four months. Luke Marshall five in less than two years. 

Incidents with Florian Fritz and George Smith have drawn outrage. Shontayne Hape's harrowing account of the series of head knocks that ended his career has to be read.

We have never had better care for potential cases of concussion than now, with the recently implemented pitchside tests and protocols now commonplace and truly making a difference.

However, World Rugby still accept that there may be a link with between repetitve head injuries and long-term issues such as brain ageing or early dementia, as research continues to find a clearer link.

Faced with that same uncertainty, Borland has decided to bow out. It's a brave, ballsy decision that cannot be commended enough.

It may lead to certain rugby players deciding to take the same route. No one will call them a coward and no one will question their choice.

Borland's move feels like a turning point and his impressive act may have huge ramifications for both rugby and the NFL. He has become a superstar in his own right.

by Ben Coles