Chris Borland

Chris Borland retires, shows that pursuing a football career in the Information Age is hardly a no-brainer

Chris Borland 49ers

Chris Borland played like an insane person, but today he announced a decision that was perfectly sane, smart and healthy. ESPN’s Outside the Lines broke the story Monday evening that Borland, 24, was retiring from the National Football League after a head-slapping, bone-crushing, body-slamming rookie season.

“I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told “Outside the Lines.” “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

Borland becomes the most prominent NFL player to leave the game in his prime because of concerns about brain injuries. More than 70 former players have been diagnosed with progressive neurological disease following their deaths, and numerous studies have shown connections between the repetitive head trauma associated with football, brain damage and issues such as depression and memory loss.

“I feel largely the same, as sharp as I’ve ever been. For me, it’s wanting to be proactive,” Borland said. “I’m concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it’s too late. … There are a lot of unknowns. I can’t claim that X will happen. I just want to live a long healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise.”

Chris Borland Tre MasonBorland played with reckless abandon, but it was evident given his reasoning that he put a lot of thought into this decision and his future.

His success the past season did not make his decision more difficult, Borland said: “I’ve thought about what I could accomplish in football, but for me, personally, when you read about Mike Webster and Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, you read all these stories, and to be the type of player I want to be in football, I think I’d have to take on some risks that, as a person, I don’t want to take on.”

Borland was referring to former NFL greats who were diagnosed with the devastating brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, after their deaths. Duerson and Easterling committed suicide.

Borland said he began to have misgivings during training camp. He said he sustained what he believed to be a concussion stuffing a running play but played through it, in part because he was trying to make the team.

“I just thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? Is this how I’m going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I’ve learned and know about the dangers?'”

He said the issue “gathered steam” as the season progressed. Before the fourth game of the preseason, at Houston, he wrote a letter to his parents informing them that he thought his career in the NFL would be brief because of his concerns about the potential long-term effects of head injuries.

After the season, Borland said, he consulted with prominent concussion researchers and former players to affirm his decision. He also scheduled baseline tests to monitor his neurological well-being going forward “and contribute to the greater research.” After thinking through the potential repercussions, Borland said the decision was ultimately “simple.”

This is a man who appeared to really love playing football, although that’s just an assumption based on his skill and playing style. Maybe Borland didn’t love the game as much as he loves competition and proving people wrong (questions about size and speed followed him into the NFL), or perhaps he just fears failure. But I’m going to risk being wrong and assume he enjoyed using his brain to anticipate what would occur a split-second later, as well as the physical acts of shedding blockers, deflecting/intercepting passes and making vicious tackles.

Borland’s career was on an upward trajectory like few rookies from his class; he put up incredible numbers at a position where it’s not easy to do so, and he was all set to replace Patrick Willis. That’s what we and the 49ers thought, anyway. He was still on his rookie contract, which means he was making decent money but stood to make much more in a few years. (Some are wondering whether the 49ers will go after Borland’s signing bonus of $617,436 in light of his decision.)

More than a few idiots will point to Borland’s decision as another example of the “wussification” of the world, or ‘Merica.

“Players were tougher back in the day. If these kids have their way, they’re gonna take away our FOOTBALL!”

This is a ridiculous way to think, because it’s easier to close one’s eyes and ears and go through life doing what’s expected, following what our elders and peers believe is the correct path. Borland did the opposite — instead of putting on some noise-canceling headphones and shutting out the world, he researched what could happen to him if he didn’t get off the field ASAP.

Prior generations didn’t have the information. Gary Plummer recently told Cam Inman that he’s suffering from “early stages of dementia.” Plummer played 180 games over 12 NFL seasons, an extraordinarily long career at any position, let alone linebacker (three of the five “early” retirements over the last week played linebacker: Borland, Patrick Willis and Jason Worilds, who all called it quits at 30 or younger, as did Jake Locker and Maurice Jones-Drew).

“Had I played in this particular era, with the knowledge players are now armed with, I know I wouldn’t have played 15 years,” Plummer said in a phone interview from his San Diego-area home. “Especially knowing what I know now.

***

I recently heard a story from a former NFL player — about another former NFL player who had a fairly long career — that was frightening but quite easy to believe. To protect the reputation of both players, I’m going to leave out names. The one who told the story said the other player invited him out to go get food and picked him up. While driving, the player who set up the meeting looked over at his friend and asked some version of, “Why are you here, and what are we doing?” He had absolutely no idea where he was driving, why his friend was in the passenger seat, or what they were going to do together. The player whose memory failed him is 39 years old.

***

Has the NFL peaked after a period of lawsuits, domestic assault cases and early retirements? Borland’s is the first such retirement to carry with it the weight of the league’s concussion problem. The NFL used to deny that the sport of football leads to CTE, which anyone who can read knows is asinine and misleading.

People will keep playing football. It’s still the nation’s most popular sport (by far), and the chance to earn generational wealth and fame is quite enticing for many, especially those who don’t have many options. Boxing isn’t nearly as popular as it once was, but there are still plenty of athletes willing to take part in a sport where an optimal result occurs when someone hits another person in the head often enough to achieve a “knockout,” which generally means “concussion.”

But every movement has a first step, and along with the suicides of Duerson, Junior Seau and Jovan Belcher, Borland’s proactive decision will give some people pause. More parents will prohibit their children from playing football. Kids who wouldn’t have thought twice about playing if they were born 10 years earlier may hesitate to put their brains in danger. Some youth and high school tackle football leagues could find it difficult to find insurance companies that’ll provide coverage (as Ray Ratto points out).

Back in June — perhaps close to the time when Borland suffered what he thought was a concussion during an offseason practice — a group of us media folks were leaving the practice field. Borland was opening the heavy door that separates the players’ parking lot from the field, and he held it open until all of us (around 10-to-12 people) made our way through. It’s the kind of thing I’ve never seen before or since from a professional athlete — it was my first clue that Borland is a bit more thoughtful than your average gladiator. Monday provided a much better indicator, and we’ll see if his retirement causes other young players to follow him out the door that separates the playing field from a “normal” life, or at least one free from nagging worries over head trauma.

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