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(Reuters) - The NFL has endured a tumultuous season dealing with domestic abuse cases, a murder trial and a probe into possible cheating, but it is a spate of early retirements that may have the longest lasting impact.
Chris Borland, a 24-year-old linebacker who led the San Francisco 49ers in tackles as a rookie last season, became the fourth player in a week aged 30 or younger to retire, calling it quits over concerns about the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma.
"This is the most serious challenge for the NFL in the short run and the long run," Smith College economics professor and sports business author Andrew Zimbalist told Reuters in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
"It's being manifested in lower participation rates in youth football around the country," he said about worries over the effects of head trauma from gridiron collisions.
Borland's surprise announcement on Monday followed the retirements of quarterback Jake Locker (26) and linebackers Jason Worilds (27) and Patrick Willis (30).
"I just honestly want to do what's best for my health," Borland, who met with prominent concussion researchers before making his decision, told ESPN. "From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."
The National Football League, meanwhile, awaits judicial approval over their settlement offer to a lawsuit brought by former players that could cost the league $1 billion in damages.
The NFL asserts the game has "never been safer."
"We respect Chris Borland's decision and wish him all the best. Playing any sport is a personal decision," Jeff Miller, the NFL's senior vice president of health and safety policy, said in a statement.
"By any measure, football has never been safer ... with rule changes, safer tackling techniques at all levels of football, and better equipment, protocols and medical care for players."
Miller said concussions in NFL games were down 25 percent last year, continuing a three-year trend.
Yet the suicide deaths of high-profile former players Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, who will be inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame in August, shined a chilling light on the effects of degenerative brain disease.
David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute in California, said he did not think Borland's retirement would have a domino effect.
"That is really unlikely, but I think we'll see added pressure now on youth leagues, high schools and even college football," said Carter.
"When the mother of a Pop Warner (Little League) player sees that, it gives them something else to talk about over the dinner table."
NYU professor Robert Boland concurred. "This is one more log on the pile of arguments that this is not a safe game," he said. "I bet (the NFL) wished that he had a change of heart or that he had not said it the way he did."
Last month Giants punter Steve Weatherford and former NFL receiver Sydney Rice, who retired last year at age 27 after numerous concussions, announced they were donating their brains after death for medical research.
Zimbalist predicts health concerns will have an impact.
"This 24 year old giving up his career is a dramatic statement and something to be reckoned with," he said.
"We'll see more and more poor kids populate the game. Middle income kids will say, 'I have a choice and I don't want to take a chance of shortening my life.'
"They'll lose some of their fan base over time but will hold on to a good chunk of it. ... gladiatorial contests are things humans have put up with and enjoyed for a long time."
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue