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Head injury concerns forcing the NFL to redefine manhood

Former WWE star and concussion campaigner Chris Nowinski says he expects more young players to retire.

Chris Nowinski has long been campaigning to raise concussion awareness.
Chris Nowinski has long been campaigning to raise concussion awareness.
Image: David J. Phillip/AP/Press Association Images

WHEN YOU WATCH the NFL on a Sunday evening, it’s very easy to forget — especially when someone on your team makes a mistake — how good the 22 players on the screen in front of you are.

It’s estimated that just 3-4% of kids who play high school football go on to play in college. Of those that do make the transition to third level, just 1.6% will end up playing professionally.

So when somebody does make it to the NFL, with the chance to finally make some money from a sport they’ve dedicated their life to, it’s rare for them to walk away.

Perhaps that’s why Chris Borland caused such surprise this week when he announced he was retiring from the NFL after one season — one very, very promising season — at the age of just 24.

The San Francisco 49ers linebacker said at the time:

“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.”

We don’t know exactly what research Borland consulted, but perhaps it was this Boston University study released in January that found NFL players who played tackle football before the age of 12 were significantly more likely to have “executive dysfunction, memory impairment, and lower estimated verbal IQ” than those who didn’t.

Or maybe it was this study that estimated that 30% of ex-NFL players will develop “at least moderate neurocognitive problems” as they get older. It goes on:

“[we expect] 14% of all former players to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and another 14% to develop moderate dementia over the next 65 years, according to the data.

“There are more than 19,000 former players still living, meaning nearly 6,000 of them will fall into those two groups. Another 31 men will be diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and 24 with Parkinson’s disease during their lives, according to the data.”

Whatever evidence Borland found, the now-former 49ers’ linebacker still walked away from what is, to many Americans, a dream job from which he stood to earns millions of dollars in his career. And while Borland has received a great deal of support for his decision, to some it is incomprehensible.

But imagine you knew that, by just going about your job, there was a real risk you could suffer a debilitating brain disease later in life. How easy would the decision to walk away be then?

That’s the view of Chris Nowinski, former WWE wrestler and founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, an organisation that has been working to raise concussion awareness in the US and beyond for the last number of years.

Borland’s decision surprised him too, but perhaps not for the same reasons it stunned the rest of the sporting world.

“I was surprised,” Nowinski told The42 this week, “but only in the sense that I didn’t think players as young as Chris were really doing their homework on head injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) but I’m certainly not surprised by the conclusion that he drew.

“We’ve always had an open door policy for athletes to come and talk to us at the Sports Legacy Institute and made players aware of the information and research we have available.

“And I think that any current player will have to wonder what Chris Borland learned to take the decision to retire so I expect we’ll hear from more soon.”

Rams 49ers Football Chris Borland in action for the 49ers last season. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Nowinski admits it has been refreshing to see the number of people who have supported Borland’s decision with very little commentary questioning the 24-year old’s bravery which suggests the tide may be turning when it comes to defining manhood.

“It’s the first time someone so young, with such a bright future where he could potentially earn much more than the half-million he was due to be paid this year, has walked away from the sport because he doesn’t know what the future holds so there’s definitely something of shock factor because of that.

“However, I also think it’s worth pointing out how respectful people in the US have been about the decision, much more so than they might have been two years ago which goes to show how seriously people are treating head injuries now.

“It’s interesting to see that sport is redefining manhood in that it’s no longer about going out and destroying yourself but now about making sacrifices to your pride and being a better husband to your wife or father to your kids by looking towards the long term future.”

While Borland might be the first young player to walk away from the sport prematurely, Nowinski doesn’t believe he’ll be the last.

“People have reached out. I’ve taken some NFL players over the brain bank and they’ve all walked away form the sport within two years of coming. It’s about context, the more players realise the risks involved, the less they’re willing to take them.”

‘Tradition is a terrible reason to give people avoidable brain damage’ – Chris Nowinski

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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