Twenty years from now, when we look back on it all, we may well decide that this is the turning point, that Chris Borland’s retirement was the first domino to fall. It’s going to seem weird. A multi-billion dollar sports industry, the NFL, running the most popular team sport in the United States, just . . . ending. The Super Bowl, the single biggest TV event of the year, just going away. But the demise of professional football will only seem remarkable in retrospect. When it all ends, we’ll all sit back and agree that there was nothing else that could have been done. It just wasn’t worth it.
Chris Borland is 24 years old. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in history, then was drafted in the third round of the NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers. He is a thoughtful and intelligent young man. His position, inside linebacker, was one in which the 49ers wouldn’t seem to have needed much help. The 49ers had two of the best inside linebackers in all of football, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman; it was thought that Borland wouldn’t play much. But then Willis hurt his foot, and Bowman was slower than expected to recover from knee surgery. Early in the season, Borland won the starting job, and was spectacular. He looked like a superstar. A few days ago, Patrick Willis, age 30, announced his retirement from professional football. His foot just wasn’t getting better, and he was concerned about the quality of his life going forward. But 49ers’ (and I count myself as one), weren’t concerned. After all, we had Chris Borland.
And then, yesterday, Chris Borland likewise announced his retirement from professional football. He wasn’t injured. He wasn’t disgruntled. He didn’t have some kind of religious experience that persuaded him to do something else with his life, as former 49er Glen Coffee had had. (Coffee, after a promising rookie year, retired, saying he had become convinced that ‘God didn’t want him to play football’). No, Borland retired because he had researched the long term effects of multiple minor concussions. “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.” Here’s the interview.
Over 70 former NFL players have been diagnosed post-mortem with degenerative neurological disease. Numerous studies have demonstrated a connection between head trauma and subsequent brain damage. Borland did his research, and made an informed decision about his health and his future. He also left a lot of money on the table. As a budding star, he could easily have made a bundle if he’d stuck around a few years.
But what’s really remarkable about Borland’s announcement has been the reaction of his teammates and other current NFL players. Pretty much everyone’s been supportive. Borland’s 49er teammate, Frank Gore, long considered the epitome of the NFL tough guy, said he ‘respected Chris’ decision.’ Here’s a sampling of supportive tweets. The words used by his fellow plays seem particularly interesting to me; they talk about his ‘courage,’ and how hard it can be to ‘do the right thing.’
I didn’t expect that. The NFL code of toughness says that if you ‘get your bell rung,’ you find a way to get back in the game. Most former players can tell humorous stories about games in which they were concussed, but got back on the field. ‘I played the second half, and still don’t remember a thing about it.’ That kind of thing. But the data is piling up, and those stories aren’t as funny as they once were. In the most recent Super Bowl, Patriots’ receiver Julian Edelman may well have caught the winning touchdown pass while concussed. The reaction around the league was pretty hostile; he should have come out of the game, players are saying. His coaches should have forced him out.
And that’s how football will die, I think. Not with a bang, but a whimper. More and more parents will decide not to sign that permission slip; more and more high schools will have to weigh insurance costs, and decide there are better extra-curricular activities for their students.
And more and more fans of the sport (like me) feel conflicted about it, and question whether this is a sport to which we should give our time and attention. We’ve seen too many former players who have a hard time climbing stairs or bending over to pick up their grandkids. And too many who have suffered brain trauma. Chris Borland is right. And he won’t be the first.