When Chris Borland recently announced he was retiring from the NFL at age 24 it created shockwaves.
Borland was coming off a strong rookie season as a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers and in good health. But concerns about his future well-being, about the effects of repeated blows to the head in a physical sport, caused him to walk away from pro football.
Borland said he has had two diagnosed concussions. In an interview with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” he said, “I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise.”
Some were stunned by Borland’s decision and his reasoning. Others applauded it.
“I don’t know his medical history, but I think it was a responsible decision,” said Kevin Guskiewicz, a UNC professor and one of the nation’s leading concussion experts. “You can’t say across the board that if you have two, three or four concussions, you need to hang ’em up. Each person responds differently to concussions, and no one can predict what the outcome will be precisely.
“I commend him for it, but I do not expect a lot to jump in line behind him.”
Hockey, like football, has a lot of contact and contact to the head. The Carolina Hurricanes have had a number of players suffer concussions in recent years including forward Jeff Skinner, who has been sidelined three times by concussions since his rookie season of 2010-11.
Skinner is 22. Defenseman Ryan Murphy, who has had concussion issues, will be 22 Tuesday.
Are there concerns? Should there be?
‘Not something I’m worried about’
“It’s such a touchy subject, concussions,” Murphy said. “Some people have lingering effects from it. I talk to some who have had a concussion and they talk about having headaches days after, the light-headedness, things like that. For me, I never got any of that. I was pretty good at the healing process from my concussions.
“It’s not something I’m worried about. I haven’t had any lingering effects from any of my concussions, so I feel safe and comfortable out on the ice. But I can’t speak for other players because I know other players react differently to head trauma.”
Skinner and Murphy were teammates in junior hockey with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. In an October 2009 game, Rangers defenseman Ben Fanelli was slammed from behind by Mike Liambas of the Erie Otters in what Skinner, who was on the ice, called a “really scary play.”
Fanelli, then 16, suffered a fractured skull and serious brain injury – “He almost died,” Murphy said. Some believed Fanelli would not play again, but he returned to the ice for the Rangers in September 2011.
Two months later, Murphy went down in a Rangers game. Hit hard from behind by Niagara IceDogs forward Tom Kuhnhackl, Murphy suffered his second concussion and missed several games.
Murphy said Fanelli began a charity named “Head Strong: Fanelli 4 Brain Injury Awareness” to help others learn about the rising number of brain injuries that Fanelli has called an epidemic in sports. “Through that charity I learned about concussions,” Murphy said. “He educated me.”
Skinner and Murphy were first-round draft picks by the Hurricanes – Skinner taken seventh overall in 2010 and Murphy 12th in 2011. Skinner was the Calder Trophy winner in 2011 as the NHL’s best rookie, and both are considered key parts of the Canes’ core group.
Skinner suffered concussions in the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons. In September, he suffered a third concussion in a preseason game against the Washington Capitals, missing the first four games of the 2014-2015 regular season.
“Obviously I’d rather have zero,” Skinner said of his concussions. “But for me, I can only look forward. It’s tough looking back and going through the what-if scenarios and rehash things in your mind.”
Skinner said he was aware of Borland’s decision to retire from the NFL, that Borland was fearful of the risks.
“Football is a little bit of a different sport (than hockey),” Skinner said. “Both are contact sports and obviously injuries come with our sport. I think everyone is aware of that. Hockey is a fast, physical contact sport and injuries do happen. I think you try to be as aware as you can out there and avoid (hits) when you can and take care of your body when you’re injured.”
Canes forward Brad Malone is older at 25. But he plays a rough-and-tumble game, giving and receiving hits, and will drop the gloves for some fisticuffs when needed.
Malone said he has had concussions, which he refers to as “situations.” But he’s not about to give up the sport or change his style of play.
“It’s a sacrifice I guess I’m willing to make,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you know the risk but you don’t want to think about it, right?
“If that situation was affecting my life at home and the people around me, away from the rink and at the rink, then I think that’s when I sit down and sort of reevaluate. Until that time I think you kind of deal with the blows or the situation at hand.”
Evaluating the risks
Athletes are becoming more aware of potential health risks such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It’s a progressive degenerative disease of the brain caused by repetitive head trauma and has been cited after the deaths in recent years of football players and hockey players, including Derek Boogaard, whose brain revealed evidence of CTE.
“Obviously you feel bad for people who have had issues,” Malone said. “But it’s a risk you have to be willing to take.”
Former Canes defenseman Niclas Wallin returned to Sweden to play after his NHL career. After three concussions in one year, he was told by doctors to retire.
“It was too big a risk,” Wallin said.
Guskiewicz doesn’t believe there is an epidemic of sports concussions. More are being reported by the media, he said, but that doesn’t mean there has been a sudden rise in the actual numbers.
“There is an increase in awareness about concussions out there, in every sport, in every league,” he said. “At the highest levels they’re educating athletes about concussions, about the importance of reporting them and reporting teammates who don’t ‘seem right.’
“While there are not more concussions, it has forced a lot of athletes to rethink the purpose of playing their sport if they have a history of concussions. Some may think to retire if they have three or four concussions. They have to think about their life at 35 or 45 and not just at 25.”