Catalyst Winter 2018

A Football Player Turned Science Champion

Interview with Chris Borland


Chris Borland is a former linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers. After a successful college career at the University of Wisconsin, Borland was named the National Football League’s Defensive Rookie of the Month in 2014. The next year, he retired from professional football, citing his concern over the consequences of concussions. Borland has joined UCS in calling out corporate interests—such as the NFL—that attempt to sideline science.
Photo: Genna Reed/UCS

Chris, you walked away from a career that by all early indications was going to be very successful. How did you decide to retire? Was there one event that triggered your choice?

Chris Borland: While it wasn’t a sudden decision, a concussion I sustained prior to my rookie season [with the 49ers] kind of changed my approach.

It was three weeks or so into what's called fall camp, or training camp, where you practice every day. It was a routine play, and I was concussed slightly. I felt a little foggy for the rest of the day. That's not something that's uncommon for an inside linebacker.

However, I was just starting my career, and with some tragic stories that had come out, like Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, and others, I thought, "What's going to happen to me if I do this for a long time?"

I was reading about these tragedies and reading about what might be going on in my brain as I'm playing. So, it really took from August 2014 up until the day I called the 49ers in March 2015 to make the decision. Having dedicated my life to something, it was very hard.

At that point, were you concerned about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)? Had you already been hearing about the possibility that even sub-concussive hits can contribute to the condition?

Chris Borland: I was ignorant to it all. I'd heard the acronym CTE. Concussions were a hot topic, but I didn't know about sub-concussive hits. I didn't know about the biomechanics behind the injury. I didn't even know that chronic traumatic encephalopathy was what CTE stood for. So, I truly started from square one.

Were you at particular risk for concussions?

Chris Borland: Yes, I think that factored into my decision. I spent the entirety of my rookie season looking into the consequences of a long career at one of football’s most dangerous positions. It was an excruciating exploration.

After you retired, your concern about your brain led you to participate in a couple of scientific studies. What was that like? What did you learn?

Chris Borland: That was a new experience for me. After I quit, I had a brain SPECT scan [a nuclear imaging test] done at a private institution. I'm also involved in the DETECT study that they're doing at Boston University, which is important to me because it tracks you over a long period of time. There's not much in the way of epidemiological studies of football players. So, it'll be important to see what happens to guys with varying experiences within the game, what happens over the course of their life.

Why are you standing up for science with the Union of Concerned Scientists, and calling out corporate disinformation campaigns such as those conducted by the NFL, which rejected early CTE research and denied any risk from playing football?

Chris Borland: Well, most simply: for the truth. I think that's important. I’ve seen research that says the white matter in children's brains changes with one season of football. I’ve seen research that says the amount of time you play is correlated to the extent to which you have symptoms of CTE. On and on, and yet there's a TV show with five-year-olds playing tackle football. It’s sad to see doubt being sown in a field where children are at risk.

The NFL propagates this myth that there's "safe tackling," or that the research is still evolving, which of course it is. But I think there's a slim sliver of a gap between correlation and causation with this issue, and they live in that gap, and blow up that gap and show everybody that gap. But in reality, I think we can draw some conclusions. So that's why it's important to me. I made a pragmatic decision about my own personal health and found myself cast in this role as an advocate. And I think over the past couple of years, I have been a part of some really great things.

Do you miss being a football player?

Chris Borland: Yeah. I think I'll always miss playing. But I don't miss being in pain. There's a lot of it I don't miss.

What are you doing today instead of football?

Chris Borland: For one thing, I've been involved in a documentary film called Requiem for a Running Back [in theatres recently]. For my money, it's the best representation of CTE. It follows the journey of a woman and her father, who was a longtime player and coach. It illustrates to me the fact that brain injury happens not only to the player who goes through it, but to everyone within their inner circle, from family to caregivers, to the people they work with. That's not a topic that always gets a lot of attention. You'll hear players asked, "Would you do it all again?" and to a man, most players say yes no matter how they're doing. I think you may get a different answer—at least a more nuanced answer—if you ask their wives or children or brothers and sisters. The film zeroes in on that.

Do you think there’s any way to make football safer?

Chris Borland: One thing I think is imperative is that we mandate that kids wait until high school to play. I think a lot of people who are experts in football would agree that the best thing, if you wanted to turn a seven-year-old boy into an NFL superstar, is to have him wait, play a wide variety of sports, come into football healthy, and learn good technique.

After the 2011 collective bargaining agreement in the NFL, you can only hit once weekly throughout the season. However, in college, we hit two and sometimes three times a week. In high school, we hit two and three times a week. Most brain injuries happen in practice, not games. It makes no sense to me that we're having children as young as five years old hit their heads more than professionals making millions of dollars.

What would you like to see the NFL do to protect players?

Chris Borland: Waiting, minimizing exposure, and then looking into providing health care and perhaps a fund for former players that do succumb to these struggles. Not every player does, but it's tremendously expensive, and I think the NFL has done a really good job of privatizing the profits and socializing the costs, and a lot of that is passed on to the communities where these people live.

But I don't think you can look to the NFL to make changes. They say they're changing the culture. That sounds profound, that sounds meaningful. But I can tell you, from a player's perspective, spots on the field are worth millions of dollars. You can say, "If you're feeling symptoms, report it." But that's not how it works, because there's a guy right behind you who's hyper-competitive who won’t report it. So, clearly we need more public pressure and more science brought to bear if we want to see more done to protect players.