In the news last week was 49ers standout rookie linebacker Chris Borland’s unexpected retirement from the NFL. Medical science shows that football can take a terrible toll on a player’s brain—repeated hits potentially causing brain damage later in life. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, multiple concussions increase risk of dementia, depression and other forms of mental impairment. Many NFL players have reported struggling with thinking, memory and emotional problems post-play, and autopsies of football players have revealed brains that show atrophy and abnormalities. Researchers at the Boston University CTE Center have found that 76 of 79 deceased former NFL players have been diagnosed with brain disease. Having had two diagnosed concussions, Borland decided to walk away from a career that included four-year contract worth $3 million, including a signing bonus of $617,436.
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Chris Borland going for a tackle against Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch (which, let’s be honest, is enough to give anyone a concussion)
In an interview with ESPN, Borland explained, “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?'”
Both Borland’s decision as well as the reception his choice received are opposite of the play-through-pain image associated with the NFL as seen in the past few decades. After recent research and history of declining retired players, most have supported Borland in his decision. These unfortunate examples include Pittsburgh Steelers center “Iron Mike” Webster who retired in 1990 and struggled with a mental issues that left him jobless, homeless and divorced. He died in 2002 at age 50 from a heart attack, and during the autopsy it was seen that his brain resembled one of advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson took his life in 2011 at age 50, reportedly so his brain could be examined for damage. Junior Seau, a former linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, killed himself in the same way in 2012. To learn more about concussion research in football, click here.
Of course, brain injuries aren’t all that football players (or any athletes for that matter) endure.
“I’ve had football players, one play with a collapsed lung, another with broken ribs, another with a broken leg,” says noted sports agent Leigh Steinberg in a WebMD article. “They’re brave and courageous, but they take risks that don’t fit anyone’s standards of protecting health.”
Why do we do it? Why play through injuries that are going to affect our bodies for 50-60 years to come? My ankles are still weak from sprained ankles I didn’t let fully recover before I was out on the floor. I was in 6th or 7th grade when I sprained an ankle to the point where I could barely walk on it without an ankle brace—I was told to quit crying and play through it, and I did. FOR WHAT? I’ve also played through Strep throat, flues, fevers, back strains, shoulder strains, tendonitis… and I’m sure most athletes can say the same.
I constantly see “motivational quotes” pop up on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter with sayings like:
“Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.” – Lance Armstrong
“Don’t quit. You’re already in pain. You already hurt. Get a reward from it.” – Unknown
“Pain is weakness leaving the body.” – Unknown
“Pain is temporary. Victory is eternal.” – Unknown
TWe are being told by those around us that our athletic success is more important than the pain it takes to get there… which, come on… is that really the case for most of us? This may ring true if you are on the verge of winning an Olympic medal (we will all remember Kerri Strug), or if you’re about to win the Super Bowl, or if you are in the Final Four of March Madness, maybe even a State Championship if you are in high school, etc. (And really, if you think about it… probably still not worth it, depending on the injury.) But for the majority of us who are probably not going to be the next National Champion, the pain we push our bodies through is not temporary. Especially if you are pushing your body hard for years.
I’ll use myself as an example again: because I played basketball for 15 years of my life, I can no longer run long distances on hard surfaces. There goes my dream of being an Iron Man finisher. My knees and hips can no longer take the impact. It’s not the end of the world right now, but what happens when I reach 35? I fear my joints will feel like I’m approaching 60.
Arthritis in major joints like the shoulders, hips, and knees is common for all types of athletes, even without a prior injury. Studies show that soccer players alone have ten times the risk of developing hip arthritis than the average person. The fact is that athletes create a significant amount of wear and tear through their repetitive motion.
My husband still plays basketball regularly, but chooses to no longer play 3-on-3 outside on pavement because it is too hard on his body. He also has sworn numerous times that he (and some of his other post-sport college basketball playing buddies) will no longer play after turning 30 because it is getting so hard for his body to recover. (Although I’m sure he won’t be able to stay away!)
I’m not saying to young athletes that they shouldn’t play a sport. I’m saying be careful, and take care of yourself. There may be pressure from parents, teammates, coaches and fans to play through the pain or sickness, but it isn’t worth prolonging an injury or making it worse. I understand that the game, race or match in front of you feels like the most important thing in the world, but 30 years from now you probably won’t remember the game, but may still be feeling the pain. Borland stands as a great example and prompt for other athletes to take future health into consideration.
Some more inspiring quotes, in my opinion:
“Time and health are two precious assets that we don’t recognize and appreciate until they have been depleted.” – Denis Waitley
“Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live in.” – Jim Rohn
“Your body is your most priceless possession… so go take care of it!” – Jack Lalanne
“Chris Borland Retires at 24: Leaves SF 49ers Because of Brain Injury Concerns.” (Mar. 17, 2015.) Inquisitr. Retrieved Mar. 27, 2015 from http://www.inquisitr.com/1930781/chris-borland-retires-at-24-leaves-sf-49ers-because-of-brain-injury-concerns/
Thompson, Dennis. “For Safety’s Sake: A Young Star Quits the NFL.” (Mar. 20, 2015.) WebMD. Retrieved Mar. 26, 2015 from http://www.webmd.com/brain/news/20150320/for-safetys-sake-a-young-star-player-quits-pro-football.
“Why do Retired Athletes Hurt?” (2015.) Pain.com. Retrieved Mar. 27, 2015 from http://pain.com/archives/2015/03/27-retired-athletes-hurt/.