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Milwaukee Concussion Doctor Says Borland's NFL Retirement Could Improve Awareness

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Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images
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Chris Borland (left) has announced his retirement from the NFL.

Athletes and sports fans are buzzing about Chris Borland’s decision to leave the NFL.

The former Wisconsin Badger is retiring from the San Francisco 49ers after a stand-out rookie season.

The reason: Borland says he’s worried about head trauma. He says he’s researched the potential long-term impact of head injuries and the chance of developing a degenerative brain condition. He told ESPN the risk isn’t worth it.

“It was just kind of the realization, you know, I had just started my professional career. And am I going to go down this road, am I going to commit the prime of my life to something that could ultimately be detrimental to my health,” Borland asked.

One person who’s impressed is Dr. Kevin Walter at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. He guesses Borland’s choice was a tough one.

“In reality it shouldn’t be, that should be an easy decision. You should not be a brain-impaired individual if you have that option. But given the money and the fame and everything that goes along with (being) a young man that devoted his athletic career to getting to this point and then to walk away -- I can’t imagine the amount of thought and difficulty he had making that decision,” Walter says.

Walter has plenty of experience dealing with concussions among young athletes. He’s program director of Pediatric and Adolescent Sports Medicine. The doctors at his clinic treat up to 1,800 concussion patients a year.

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Credit Erin Toner
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Dr. Kevin Walter, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital, runs through a few neurological tests with 13-year-old Vince Segura, who suffered a concussion playing basketball.

Walter expects Borland’s decision to further increase awareness among parents and children of the risk of concussions.

“You look at eighth graders and freshmen, when that’s all they want to do -- and even families are like this will sacrifice anything just to get to the NFL -- and here’s someone at the NFL level saying, hey, my health is not worth this game, this occupation, it’s time to do something else,” Walter says.

Walter says more student athletes already are seeking appropriate care for concussions these days. He says there are a few reasons, including a new state law. It requires youth to obtain written medical clearance before returning to their sport. Another is the work of the National Federation of State High School Associations. It offers online tutorials for coaches.

Wade Labecki is with the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. It has taken steps to reduce the chance of permanent brain damage, by promoting protocol for injured student athletes. They should not take part in normal athletic activities until passing a series of steps, beginning with light exercise.

“That might be walking, it might be biking, it could be a stationary bike. Once they’ve done those activities for 15 minutes and they’re symptom free, then we wait a 24 hour period and then we introduce more strenuous exercise,” Labecki says.

Eventually – after two weeks or more – students can return to competition.

Labecki says not everyone accepted the protocol right away.

“I can remember when we first instituted these rules back in 2009, we had two parents who wanted their children to continue in ice hockey, after being diagnosed with five concussions, and the doctor would not sign off on that. So they went around to various doctors and eventually asked us to provide a waiver, and obviously we said no,” Labecki says.

Labecki admits that some parents, coaches or athletes might ignore the protocol, “in the heat of the moment.” For pro Chris Borland, it took years to decide whether playing was worth the risk.

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