Dangers of Concussions

DANGERS OF CONCUSSIONS: Sports Parents of Football Players Blindsided by Chris Borland’s Unexpected Retirement

Some years ago, in the mid-1990s, there was a famous psychological study reported in Sports Illustrated.

The study asked 198 top Olympic athletes the following choice: if you could take an illegal drug that would allow you to win every event you entered for the next five years – and you wouldn’t get caught – but at the end of five years, you would die….would you take the drug?

More than half said yes. Think about that…..these top athletes would have traded their chance for a long and healthy life for a short-term goal.

To me, that study has some real parallels to what’s happening with the NFL and concussions. In short, if you’re good enough to play in the NFL, and for five years or so you lead a glorious and well-paid life, would you still do it….even though you know that the odds are good your brain might be scrambled beyond repair for the rest of your life?

Now, keep that study in mind….

It was way back last year that I posted the question to you all….Is the sport of football now beginning to decline, and ultimately – thanks to the knotty problem of concussions in the sport – that we’re going to witness the end of this sport?

You already have heard and read about the former NFL players suing and winning about concussion issues. A federal judge is saying that the NFL needs to put up more money to cover future damages.

And now, this past week, one of the NFL’s top rising stars, Chris Borland, at the age of 24, has walked away. A Big Ten All-Star at the University of Wisconsin at 6 foot, 250, he quit due to concussion concerns, even though he hasn’t had a serious history of concussions in recent years. (Although I believe Borland said he had a couple of concussions from when he was younger, one from when he was in 9th grade, and one from playing youth soccer

Of all the things that the NFL DOES NOT want to have happen, it was this: Borland is a bright young star who, at age 24 and before he’s made tons of money, has walked away from the game he loves from a fear of concussions, and what that could mean to his life as he gets older.

He didn’t burn out on the game…or lose interest….or wasn’t good enough. After all, that’s why most NFL players walk away.

Rather, he’s read all the research and articles about former NFL players having serious brain issues as they get older, and Borland didn’t want to risk that.

Remember that even the NFL admits that at least a third of its former players have brain-related issues when they retire.

Some NFL front office people and medical personnel have pooh-poohed this. Eliot Wolf, director of player personnel with the Packers, was quoted as saying that he’s overwhelmed by how many calls and emails he receives from players who WANT to play in the NFL.  Another NFL doctor pointed out that more kids get hurt, statistically, each year from bike injuries than from concussions.

But these fellows are missing the point.

Nobody is suggesting that the NFL is going to shut down tomw. But the truth is, there are all sorts of surveys everywhere that reveal that more and more parents DO NOT want their kids to play football.

The numbers at the youth level are dropping. And also at the HS level. Within a few years, those numbers will begin to take their toll.

So from a football perspective, Chris Borland’s “retirement” at age 24 is very devastating…and if you’re a sports parent who has a son who plays football, or is thinking about playing football, I don’t know how you get around this.

I mean, if the kid had a real history of serious concussions — and he doesn’t want to risk any more — well, that makes sense.

Or if for some reason, he was warned by his doctor to quit because he was feeling depressed, well, that’s another reason. What I mean is, there have been recent cases of college football players who have taken their own lives, and autopsies have revealed serious build-of tau, the unwanted substance that comes from concussions.

But from all accounts, this is a very healthy star football player who seems very level-headed (no pun intended) and has thought it all through, and has decided to quit.

That is quite an indictment of the sport he clearly loves.

Sports Parents Need to Decide

So what does one do, if your son tells you that he wants to play football?

In truth, I’m not sure what I would suggest or do in this kind of situation. Obviously, you want your son to have a long and healthy life. So is the gamble to play a few years of football really worth it?

Here again, as I wrote in the Huffington Post last week, I sure wish the President’s Council on Physical Fitness would come up with guidelines here to help sports parents everywhere find a pathway through the maze. After all, for every doctor who says that concussions are terribly dangerous, there’s another top physician who will say that the concern is overblown. It all makes it very difficult for a sports parent to have to make a choice on this vitally important matter.

Meanwhile, it’s our kids who end up paying the price.