NFL, Concussions, and Early Retirement

This NFL offseason has been disastrous for the 49ers, and it got a lot worse Monday with the retirement of promising young LB Chris Borland.

Yes.  That happened.

A healthy 24 year-old man who had a stellar rookie campaign in replacement of the injured Patrick Willis decided to RETIRE from the NFL.

After one season.

Because of concerns over his long-term health related to concussions and CTE.

It’s bad for the 49ers, but they’ll find another linebacker.

It’s bad for the NFL, because it’s one more case of a young player with options who is actively choosing his option NOT to play football at its highest level.  Chris Borland is not alone.  In fact he’s not the first.  Jake Locker (26), Jason Worilds (27), Patrick Willis (30); all men in their primes who have decided the cost is no longer worth the reward.  Borland,  is built like an Ankylosaurus… and he plays like one.   Maybe I should have said tank… He’s built like a tank… and he plays like a tank.  The hammer – not the nail.   Guys like Chris Borland don’t quit.

And he didn’t quit.  He made a conscientious decision based on the facts.  He spoke to experts.  He consulted his family.  Ultimately, he decided that being a hammer is not the best career path, because in being one of those he also risks being a lesser version of himself at an early age when his playing days are done.

Twitter is blowing up with people praising Borland for his decision, and talking about how it represents a paradigm shift in the NFL as fans and players become more aware of the dangerous nature of the game.  I’ve seen responses ranging from “good for him” to “this is the most important thing a 49er has ever done”  Hyperbole abounds.

The truth is- this is NOT a game changer.

A growing trend?  Maybe not even that.  I feel crass in saying so, but the reality of this discussion is that the NFL isn’t going anywhere any time soon.  The kind of forethought and mature decision-making that Chris Borland displayed in stepping away before his own talents start to work against him is far too rare in the face of the cash and glory that the NFL can provide.  Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the job IS a very brutal one, there are thousands of players who will not be brave/intelligent/accountable enough to make the Chris Borland decision.  I have said it before, and will say it again. There are a LOT of young men who dream of playing in the League who will continue to knowingly accept the risks.  Even if those risks mean potentially trading “normal” long lives for a lucrative and glorious prime.  So while this headline is bad for the NFL.  The Shield will certainly withstand the temporary onslaught.

The only uniquely positive thing about this decision by Chris Borland is the fact that he is taking responsibility for himself.  He is making his own decision and controlling his own destiny in an era where most guys sign up to play, suffer the consequences, and then throw their names on a class action suit against the NFL, claiming that they didn’t know the game -the same one where giant, fast, scary men smash into one another in consecutive moments of barely-controlled chaos- was dangerous.  Instead of trying to “have his cake and eat it too” he has opted to keep the ‘cake’ safe and pursue other interests.  He recognized that pleading ignorance was B.S. and set an example for accountability.  THAT is why this decision is impactful.

It’s an unpopular, insensitive reaction in a moment where most people are celebrating Chris Borland’s decision.  But guess what?  Those same people don’t want to see this choice become a common one.  It’s all well and good that this bright young player with a degree from Wisconsin has decided to walk away.  But fans, coaches, media, other players, DO NOT want this to become anything more than a random outlying  headline.

On alternate days, public opinion and the media seem to decide that The NFL is either a massive, cold, villainous, morally-bankrupt money machine OR America’s pastime and the greatest sports organization the planet will ever see.  Very little in-between. It is impossible not to get frustrated if you read between the lines or know what is being left unsaid.

Good for you Chris Borland !!! (but let’s hope not too many other players are as wise as you)

Concussions are a serious problem!!! (but these new rules are making the game soft and ruining football!)

We’re sick of seeing these scumbag wife-beaters get special treatment!!!!  (but…. He just made a mistake, and he’s  really good  so I’d be okay with my team signing him)

The NFL needs to take better care of players!  This is an outrage!!!  (but as long as I get my football on Sundays… and Mondays and Thursdays… I’ll keep watching- and more importantly- buying the NFL product..)

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