Willfully blind or only ignorant?

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(Photo courtesy of the San Diego Chargers)

By Ron Borges

Talk of Fame Network

Apparently, not even doctors are immune to the blind eye.

Barely 48 hours after 24-year-old San Francisco 49ers' linebacker Chris Borland announced he was leaving the game out of fear of brain injury, Pittsburgh Steelers' neurosurgeon and NFL medical consultant Dr. Joseph Maroon, who advises the league on head, neck and spine injuries, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) "a rare phenomena" and claimed youth football is safer than riding a bike or skateboard.

What is this guy: A dentist or a doctor?

After Borland told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" he feared future brain injuries after sustaining what he thought was a concussion in training camp last year and retired after only one season of great promise in the NFL out of fear of long-term brain damage from the game, Maroon surfaced to counter his decision on NFL Network.


Who owns NFL Network again? And who does Maroon work for?

Maroon called the problem of CTE "over-exaggerated,'' which is the same thing the league used to say before settling a multi-million dollar law suit with over 4,000 former players -- a case with an offer now approaching a billion dollars and yet to be finally approved by the judge out of fear the money is not enough to cover future claims. That's a high price to pay if someone is "over-exaggerating'' a problem.

CTE is the protein build-up in the brain that leads to dementia and that was found in all but one of the brain studies done on former NFL players, examined after their deaths. It is normally found only in the aged ... or people who suffered severe and repeated brain trauma.

"We came up with 63 total cases of CTE [and] in the last two years a few more," he said. "But there have been 30-40 million kids who have played football during that period of time. It's a rare phenomena. We have no idea the incidence.''

The latter point is his most truthful. But what Maroon failed to point out is the reason: The only way to find CTE is to cut the patient's head open and slice the brain into small segments, which requires that he be dead first. Second, the ravages of CTE take years to develop and are normally seen only in old age ... or, lately, in retired football players.

Maroon's paper on the matter concludes: "The incidence of CTE remains unknown due to the lack of large, longitudinal studies. Our review reveals significant limitations of the current CTE case reporting and questions the widespread existence of CTE in contact sports."

In other words, not enough brains have been sliced open to prove it. Dr. Maroon sounded eerily like those "experts'' the tobacco industry used to parade around, saying cigarettes weren't hazardous to your health.

One wonders what Dr. Maroon would have told Columbus in 1491? No proof the world is round, bro?

Asked about Borland's retirement, Maroon retreated to an old saw, implying the issue was more about fear than an understanding of the risks involved. In other words, Borland wasn't tough-minded enough to control his fear.

"When an athlete is fearful of any injury, it's time to get out,'' Maroon told ESPN, implying Borland's decision was more about fear than preservation of his brain. "You can't play with apprehension in any sport and be as good as you can be. He obviously came to that conclusion himself ... However, I really believe it's never been safer in terms of the sport. The rule changes, the safer tackling techniques, the medical management of concussions is so much better than it ever has been in the history of this sport."

Better than what? Well, why don't we ask Junior Seau about how much safer the game is when he's inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer.

Love to. But, sorry, he's dead.

Three years ago Seau committed suicide, unable to handle the depression and headaches he was living with. He was careful to shoot himself in the chest to preserve his brain for study. After a sad tug-of-war over who would control his brain, it was found littered with CTE.

Junior Seau was 43 and had been retired for three years when he pulled the trigger in 2009.

Saying football is safer than it was is a far cry from saying it's safe. Saying it's safer than bike riding is laughable unless Dr. Maroon is talking about two 250-pound bike riders pedaling as fast as they can into each other with the crown of their helmets aimed at their heads.

As for youth football, one of the foremost experts in head trauma in sports, Dr. Robert Cantu, advises no kid participate in tackle football until at least 14. He argues the neck is not yet strong enough at that age to protect the brain from whiplash and that the consistent bumping of heads puts the still developing brain at considerable risk. He does not say the same about bike riding or skateboarding.

So, one wonders: Dr. Maroon, what's your position on head-butting your surgical team 20 or 30 times a week before surgery? Think it might shorten your career ... or life expectancy?

Of course, you wouldn't know because they haven't studied enough surgeons' heads. But I doubt you'd want to try it.