Thursday, August 27, 2015

Chris Borland and the Courage to Avoid Avoidance Behavior

The recent headline atop an excellent ESPN article by investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and his brother Mark Fainaru-Wada says retired San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland is "the most dangerous man in football."

Now that's an interesting statement. A retired football player -- a pretty good one but far from a superstar -- is a threat to the big and powerful NFL?

The reason is Borland's not just any retired NFL player. He retired in his prime because of his concern that repeatedly banging his brain around on the football field was unnecessarily dangerous to his health and the lifestyle he wants to lead going forward. Moreover, he's been talking to groups of people about his decision and that scares NFL execs who don't want any more bad PR around the issue of what their game can do to the human brain.

"People make the analogy to war a lot, and I have two brothers in the Army," said Borland. "Getting a TBI [traumatic brain injury] and having post-traumatic stress from war, well, that's a more important cause. Football is an elective. It's a game. It's make-believe. And to think that people have brain damage from some made-up game. The meaninglessness of it, you draw the line at brain damage."

Borland meticulously examined the growing pile of research regarding football, brain trauma, concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease due to repetitive brain trauma, such as that experienced by football players.

The disease can lead to depression, violent outbursts, memory loss and suicide. CTE was found in the brains of both Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, two former NFL players who killed themselves. During the last 10 years, CTE has been found in the brains of 87 out of 91 NFL players who were examined after their death, according to ESPN. CTE experts have concluded that the disease is found only in patients who had experienced brain trauma.

Following his investigation, Borland concluded that he didn't want to continue playing football and take the risk of not being able to play with his own kids someday. He told the 49ers he was done playing Russian roulette with his brain.

It wasn't easy. Borland loves football. He always has.

"I don't dislike football," said Borland. "I love football. If there was no possibility of brain damage, I'd still be playing."

For years, players, coaches, administrators, fans and parents of youth football players weren't aware of the dangers of football-induced brain trauma, concussions and CTE. The NFL repeatedly denied that there was any link between head injuries and football.

We now know better. But despite the widespread awareness and understanding of this problem today, many of those same players, coaches, administrators, fans and parents avoid the issue and continue on with their day-to-day lives as before. Some of them have concluded that the risks are worth taking. But most of them just don't want to deal with the ramifications of the research.

That's what makes Borland so unique and courageous. He says he's aware that some people charge him with contributing to the "pussification" of football by speaking out.

"I think in the eyes of a lot of circles, especially within football, I'm the soft guy," he says. "But I'm fine with being the soft, healthy guy."

In this case, it takes a lot more courage to be the "soft guy" than the "strap-it-up-and-admit-no-fear" guy.

The simple fix for this issue would be to make the game safer. But that's easier said than done. Football is inherently violent, and unless you remove blocking, tackling and collisions, any safety measures will have minimal impact on brain trauma.

There aren't any magic helmets out there to protect the brain, and most likely there never will be. Helmets are great at preventing skull fractures but they don't do anything to prevent concussions, which result from the brain sloshing against the side of the skull upon impact. In fact, helmets can potentially increase the risk of concussion because they add weight to the head, increasing the whiplash effect on the neck upon contact.

"I wouldn't want to be charged with the task of making violence safer," Borland told ESPN. "I think that's a really difficult thing to do."

In the case of football, unless you go to flag football, it's probably an impossible thing to do.

So, where does that leave us?

It's a free country, adults can continue to choose to play football and parents can continue to sign their children up for youth and high school football teams.

But people like Chris Borland can also continue to educate and communicate about how dangerous football is to the human brain.

People can disagree with Borland's decision. People can argue that the benefits of football continue to outweigh the negatives. But nobody who's seen the evidence can reasonably claim that Borland was being irrational when he made his decision.

And what does that say about the future of football?

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