Borland’s early retirement draws attention to tough issue for NFL

Chris Borland is the first prominent NFL player to quit solely because of fears about how the game’s inherent head trauma could affect his long-term health.

He surely won’t be the last.

Borland’s stunning retirement announcement Monday night just one year into his pro career as a San Francisco 49ers linebacker was the latest example of how greater concussion awareness has changed football’s landscape. It — along with a slew of other early retirements this month — also has moved the topic back into the spotlight after fading from prominence last season behind hotter mainstream NFL issues like domestic violence, deflated footballs and Michael Sam’s ongoing quest to become the first openly gay player to make a 53-man roster.

This isn’t good news for a league that would much rather have the offseason buzz focused on free agency, the draft and whether Tim Tebow will get another shot than on a player without an extensive documented concussion history hanging up his helmet before he developed one.

Last year, the NFL agreed to pay what will ultimately be more than $1 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit by more than 4,000 former players who claim their head injuries weren’t properly diagnosed or treated. Hundreds of millions more are being shelled out trying to prevent those problems for current players and to give a heavy push for improved youth football safety. This promotion helped result in overwhelming demand for “Heads Up” instructors from governing body USA Football.

Such NFL expenditures aren’t entirely altruistic. They’re the best thing for business. The league is well aware after decades of neglect and denials on its end that the concussion issue must be tackled head-on. The NFL has made a well-orchestrated effort to do just that through rules changes and a better albeit still imperfect medical approach.

In light of Borland’s retirement, the NFL issued a statement Tuesday reiterating that concussions were down 25 percent during the 2014 season to continue three years of declines. The league’s next step is the expected addition of a “medical timeout” that allows an independent medical advisor to stop the game so a potentially concussed player who remains on the field can be immediately examined before exposing himself to more risk.

None of these moves will stop the negative attention drawn to the sport in the wake of Borland’s decision, especially without the in-season distraction of games to divert it. More heat will come in August upon the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction of the late Junior Seau, whose family has filed a wrongful death suit against the NFL claiming improperly diagnosed and treated head trauma contributed to the former star linebacker committing suicide.

Realistically, though, the league can breathe a sigh of relief after that. The exhibition schedule begins the next day with the Hall of Fame game. The concussion conversation will fade to black behind X’s and O’s once again.

NFL’S NEWEST TREND: EARLY RETIREMENT

Monster television ratings and online traffic for football material indicates the head-trauma drama hasn’t made an appreciable dent in fan interest. Once the initial shock of his retirement passed, the first question many 49ers fans had wasn’t related to Borland’s well-being but who could be signed or drafted to replace him.

It will take years to determine the big-picture impact if any made by Borland’s move. The most significant trickle-down effect could come at the youth level, where an increasing number of parents have already become squeamish about letting their kids play.

Even with the NFL generating record-revenues, surveys by the National Federation of State High School Associations show a small but steady drop in male participants between the 2007-08 and 2013-14 school years. ESPN reported in 2013 that the Pop Warner system had suffered even more pronounced losses as concussion awareness grew.

The football train could lose even more young riders – and future fans — when someone as talented and promising as Borland walks away. Although the likelihood of football talent completely running dry is unrealistic, some of the best athletes may choose other pursuits they consider safer. And the future of football at the youth level could further be thrown into question by health-related lawsuits filed against governing bodies.

As for the NFL, the league already had an inordinate number of well-known players 30 and under – including fellow 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis and Titans quarterback Jake Locker — retire earlier this month because of health concerns or personal reasons. More of their peers will likely follow suit when further assessing the risk/reward of playing a sport in which former players are being diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss related to brain damage known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

“It scares the s*** out of me when i can’t recall a name or forget where i put my keys as we all do,” journeyman tight end Tom Crabtree wrote on his Twitter account following Borland’s retirement. “Thoughts of CTE always creep in.”

Yet for others, getting paid to play the sport they love will continue to outweigh those future medical worries.

“No offense to anyone but I’m playing until I can’t anymore,” Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner wrote on Twitter. “I love this game to (SIC) much.”

Then again, so did another former 49ers linebacker who now questions such blind devotion. Gary Plummer told the San Jose Mercury News last week that a 15-year pro career helped lead to the early onset of dementia.

“Had I played in this particular era with the knowledge players are now armed with, I know I wouldn’t have played 15 years,” Plummer said.

Borland lasted just one before making that choice.