Medical Concerns and Team Instability Raise Specter of More Early Retirements

Over recent years there has been an increased examination of the effect that football has on players’ bodies, specifically their brains and mental health.  Spurred on by the disturbing deaths and suicides of ex-players, including Junior Seau and Ray Easterling, litigation commenced against the NFL, alleging that the link between concussions and permanent brain damage was covered up by the NFL. In fact, in 2013, the NFL and several thousand players who were parties to the lawsuit came to a settlement of $765 million.  The 2011 CBA further created a neuro-cognitive benefit fund for players found to have mild or moderate neuro-cognitive impairment, and the CBA further included retroactive pension increases for retired players.  Concussion screening guidelines were altered in 2013.         

Still, despite all of these changes and evidential findings that football was deleterious to mental health, the NFL has not yet seen a mass departure of talent or early retirements.


At least, that was until this offseason.

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Since the end of the 2014 season, three young players unexpectedly left the game:  Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, and Anthony Davis, all San Francisco 49ers, retired.  All three were high-quality players who were not appreciably in decline; indeed, Borland and Davis were both 25 and younger.  Even Willis, who recently turned 30, had only accrued 8 NFL seasons.                

All three cited health concerns as their primary reason for stepping away from the game.  While Willis cited his foot injury as a reason to step away, while Borland and Davis made reference to more vague, speculative future injuries.  Borland, 24, stated

“I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health…From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.” 

Davis, 25, made similar statements, though hehas seemingly left the door open to an eventual return, saying

“After a few years of thought, I’ve decided it will be best for me to take a year or so away from the NFL.  This will be a time for me to allow my brain and body a chance to heal…I’m simply doing what’s best for my body as well as my mental health at this time in my life.” 

What makes the present situation so strange is that the retirements are localized to the 49ers, and 49ers alone; the retirements that occurred elsewhere in the league did not deviate significantly from usual norms.                

As a result, we ought to avoid looking too deeply into the three retirements as a definitive portent of things to come for other teams, as the trend has not widened beyond the 49ers, but the situation that the 49ers are in presents an interesting case study on one possible future other NFL teams may face.                  

The issues surrounding brain damage, concussions, and health generally are not likely to go away soon, and the recent focus on them is due to that wave of injured ex-players, but many players, both retired and still playing, will likely face brain damage concerns somewhere down the line.  While the NFL’s new procedures and creation of a fund to assist in medical care should alleviate some concerns, they nonetheless persist.     

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The 49ers' situation is perhaps somewhat unique in that a combination of concern over health mixed with internal coaching turmoil to create a situation where, even for young players, the value of walking away exceeded the cost.       

This situation may not remain unique over the coming years.                

NFL player turnover is high, as is head coaching turnover.  We are seeing the first generation of players in the league that truly know, coming into the NFL, of the issues and problems they may face in the future if technological and medical advances do not lessen or eliminate potential harm.  The economic benefits are great, and for many they will surely outweigh the dangers, but the first real-world examples of the cost-to-benefit analysis are both rather stark and grim.

Borland and Davis (and perhaps Willis) may represent organizational failures by the 49ers, but their appeal to health concerns must make many teams in the NFL antsy, as it should.  If the combination of health risks and organizational instability is all it takes for some high profile players to walk away from the game, the number of players who will retire would be expected to increase.                 

But how truly real is the conclusion that unstable organizations are at risk of player loss? This may be a cop out, but we do not know at this time.  As mentioned above, the 49ers situation is, at least for now, unique.  Still, every given year, a handful of teams replace coaches after suffering poor seasons, or alternatively simply see coaches leave for other reasons (Doug Marrone leaving the Bills comes to mind), with the only thing separating many teams from a 49er-esque exodus appearing to be the lack of pervasive health concerns within the local locker culture.                

The 49ers will need to be watched closely over the next couple years to see how these retirements affect them, but even more important is to watch is any organization with some measure of instability to see if that instability has shifted the cost-benefit equation for players as it seemingly did for the 49ers players.  The NFL was forced into action several years ago with the litigation it faced, and if players begin to retire based on health concerns more often, the NFL may be forced to move once more.