The last decade-plus of concussion research has had several notable effects on professional football, including lawsuits on both sides of the border, dramatic changes to medical policies and procedures, and plenty of former players coming forward to criticize leagues like the NFL and CFL for their past handling of head trauma. The most significant change may be the increasing number of players retiring young, though, and the case of 24-year-old San Francisco 49er Chris Borland walking away from the NFL this week and specifically citing concussion concerns is a particularly notable one. We've seen this in the CFL too, with the likes of Andrew Woodruff and Dimitri Tsoumpas both retiring at 28 and both saying their decision was thanks to suffering multiple concussions and being worried about future ones; Sidney Rice, who retired from the NFL at age 27 last summer, also cited concussions. Individual decisions to play or not to play are just that, individual, but the rising numbers of athletes walking away from football at younger ages than we've seen in the past suggests the concussion talk is reaching and affecting players. That could make it even more critical for leagues to take strong stances on concussion prevention, recognition and treatment if they want to survive for the long term.
Borland's decision isn't necessarily an indication that everyone's going to stop playing football. There are still tons of talented players out there who would love to make a career of professional football despite the risks, as evidenced by the thousands who pay to attend CFL teams' free agent camps every offseason. However, there are growing numbers of those who have the talent to keep playing, but are electing not to. Concussions aren't the only issue here, as many have also cited injury issues that leave many football players with ongoing pain, difficulty walking and more. in the NFL alone this offseason, 26-year-old Jake Locker, 27-year-old Jason Worilds and 30-year-old Patrick Willis have all retired citing various non-concussion reasons. Between concussions and other injuries, football certainly poses significant long-term health risks, and that message is getting through to some players, who have decided that the risks aren't worth the rewards. Even those who don't quit are aware of the long-term perils; see the 2011 discussion Doug Brown kicked off about CFL players dying young. The numbers are still being debated, but football players are more aware of the potential risks than ever, and that will undoubtedly motivate some to follow in Borland's footsteps and leave the sport early. Perhaps even more importantly, it may cause some young athletes to never choose to play football at all.
This furthers the importance of investing in concussion research, prevention and treatment, as well as developing robust diagnosis and care plans for players both during and after their careers. It's highly unlikely that we ever get to a place where football is completely safe, or even one where it isn't one of the more dangerous sports from a neurological perspective, but much can be done to make it safer. On the CFL front, a step that particularly needs to be taken is investing in independent sideline neurologists, something the NFL has done and something the CFLPA brought up during the last round of CBA negotiations without success. There are numerous other things that can be discussed too, though, including the installation of league-wide helmet g-force sensors (the Calgary Stampeders have already done this), stiffer removal and return-to-play protocols, and increased post-career medical coverage for players. All of these things come with costs, of course, but the safer leagues can make football, the fewer talented players they'll lose to early retirement (and the larger the numbers of talented young athletes who will still be willing to play football).
Borland's case shouldn't be seen as a sign that no one wants to play professional football anymore, as that's patently untrue. It also shouldn't be seen as an attack on football; many media types are portraying it as such and questioning his decision (some of the worst responses are collected here and here) in highly problematic ways, arguing that Borland's somehow obligated to play football (he's not) and that other jobs are more dangerous and worse (which is irrelevant). It should be viewed as a sign that more and more players are aware of the perils of concussions, and leagues (including both the NFL and CFL) need to note that and do everything in their power to keep players safe. Football will never be 100 per cent safe, and some further players who could play at a high level will undoubtedly choose not to thanks to the risks. That's fine, and that's their decision to make. It's leagues' responsibilities to do what they can to make football as safe as possible for those who do choose to play, and doing more on that front will help them retain more players. Borland's decision is not dooming football; if anything, it's a message to football leagues to inspire them to do better.