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Sport concussions: NFL retirement may have knock-on effect


Sport concussions: NFL retirement may have knock-on effect

As a rookie American footballer walks away from a multimillion-dollar contract after fears about concussion, the $64 million question is: will rugby and other sporting codes feel the knock-on effect?

Chris Borland was on course for a stellar career with the San Francisco 49ers. The linebacker had a lucrative deal and rave reviews, but a lingering concern about the dangers of his sport.

"I don't think it's worth the risk," he said before quitting after his debut year, aged 24. He is the fourth player under 30 to retire in a week.

It is the latest milestone in the NFL's concussion battle. Last year the league removed its $675m cap on damages for thousands of former players.

They stemmed from the post-mortem examination of Mike Webster, a former Pittsburgh Steelers centre, in 2002 and the allegation that the NFL withheld medical knowledge from its players.

The link between sport and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition normally associated with "punch-drunk" boxers, is now accepted in the US, but many feel that British sports are still burying banged heads in the sand.

Australian sporting codes have reacted to growing concern about the effects of concussion.

The NRL last year introduced stricter guidelines, under which players thought to have been knocked out must be assessed and cleared by a doctor before being allowed to resume playing. The AFL has similar rules in place, as does the ARU.

The case of George North sparked a debate in rugby when the Wales wing played on against England last month despite suffering two serious knocks to the head, one of which appeared to leave him unconscious. The Wales medical staff admitted that they would have removed North had they seen the second incident, but insisted that they had followed the concussion protocols.

North was ambivalent about the risks, saying: "Super slow-motion is good for arty-farty shots but not good for concussion. It's rugby isn't it? It's not table tennis or tiddlywinks."

Borland, though, told ESPN: "From what I've researched and experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."

He had written to his parents after the fourth game of the season, warning that his career may be a short one, citing the cases of Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, NFL players who committed suicide. A former player, Nate Jackson, told The Times: "There is a consensus that why an ex-player in his forties had dementia or committed suicide is because of CTE."

Borland said: "To be the type of player I want to be in football, I think I'd have to take on some risks that I don't want to take on."

He said that he had played through a concussion in pre-season training because he wanted to make the team. Then he thought: "What am I doing? Is this how I'm going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I've learnt about the dangers?"

The 49ers said that they were surprised by Borland's decision but respected it.

Dr Willie Stewart, who diagnosed the first case of brain damage caused by rugby in 2013, said: "The current Six Nations has averaged one concussion in every match and some people are now asking if that level of injury is justifiable. There is an assumption that brain injuries are different in different sports, but that is not true. You can be exposed to as high a level of brain injury in many other sports as in boxing."

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