At age 24, promising San Francisco 49er linebacker Chris Borland walked away from millions of dollars, unconditional adulation, and a shot at NFL stardom because he chose to value his future over the present. This might be because he knows something about the past. Borland earned a history degree at the University of Wisconsin and, to the shock of the football world, as well as the discomfort of the NFL brass, he chose to apply this knowledge and walk away from the game. If history is the greatest predictor of the future, then the path in front of Borland must have seemed horrifying. A majority of NFL players end up broke and physically damaged. Untold legions suffer from CTE, a brain ailment that affects motor skills, memory and impulse control. Early onset dementia and ALS can result from the kinds of repeated blows to the head that happen on every play of every game. The ignominious history of head injury casualties includes high-profile suicides of Hall of Famers Mike Webster and Junior Seau. It includes Dave Duerson who like Seau put a bullet in his chest instead of his head so his CTE-wracked brain could be studied. It also includes icons of the 1980s like Jim McMahon and Tony Dorsett struggling with basic life-functions. History shows that playing NFL-level-football is like playing Russian Roulette with your future, and Chris Borland decided to do what so few have done and put the gun down. “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.”
One can count the number of players in NFL history who have walked away in advance of injury and with their talent still in demand on two hands. They include running back legends Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. They also include linebacker Dave Meggyesy, who left the sport in 1969 as a political act against how he believed the violence of the football conditioned people to accept the war in Vietnam. He then wrote the classic sports memoir Out of Their League. Fittingly, Borland spoke to Meggyesy before his decision. As Meggyesy said to me, “This is a very sharp young man who did not make this decision lightly. He valued his ability to still walk away.”
According to a Sporting News survey, NFL players on social media largely gave Borland a great deal of respect, praising him for the courage of his convictions. Several high-profile NFL broadcasters were far less charitable, taking shots at Borland for making this choice. They sounded disturbingly like Bush, Cheney, O’Reilly, Limbaugh and the whole gang of those who used their advantages to avoid combat in Vietnam only to insist decades later that other people’s families sacrifice loved ones to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. As much as I despise the comparisons of sports and war, it is just too apt in this case; another example of how easy it is to stew in a whirlpool of toxic testosterone when it’s not your body, your mind, or your child at risk.
The worst response to Borland however came from the NFL itself. The easy move would have been for the league to do what the 49ers did, which was to make a classy statement that Borland was a good person, a valued member of the league, and simply wish him the best. Instead, Jeff Miller, the NFL senior VP of health and safety policy, gave a perfunctory slap on the back to Borland and then immediately pivoted to a full-throated defense of the safety of the sport, writing, “By any measure, football has never been safer.… Concussions in NFL games were down 25 percent last year, continuing a three-year downward trend. We continue to make significant investments in independent research to advance the science and understanding of these issues. We are seeing a growing culture of safety. Everyone involved in the game knows that there is more work to do and player safety will continue to be our top priority.”
Unsourced statistics and Frank Luntz massaged PR offensives about “a growing culture of safety” don’t make the game seem safer. They just make the minders of the sport sound like tobacco execs braying about the safety of the new low-tar Virginia Slim with the extra-large filter.
Then there was Steelers team neurologist Joseph Maroon who showed up on the NFL network to claim that playing tackle football was safer than riding a bicycle.
But the most revealing quote came from Packers director of player personnel Elliot Wolf who tweeted, “Anyone worried about the future of football should see the amount of calls & emails we get from kids literally begging to get into pro days.”
That, in a nutshell, is the far more serious existential problem the NFL faces. It’s not that there won’t be people “literally begging” to play the game. It’s that college athletes like Chris Borland who don’t come from dire poverty will in greater and greater numbers choose to do something else with their minds and bodies. Many NFL players began their lives in destitute situations defined by hardship, but many others come to the league from stable, middle-class backgrounds as well. That middle-class player, especially those like Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick who played multiple sports, will become scarce. Meanwhile, as ticket prices rise, we are facing a sport ready to go “full gladiator” as poor people, disproportionately black, damage one another’s brains for wealthy, disproportionately white crowds. For an NFL that likes to paint itself as synonymous with America and apple pie, this has the potential to just be an awful commercial look. It could become a disturbing revealed truth about where this country is headed. In history class, Chris Borland probably studied Rome. That didn’t end well. But he also surely learned that history could be altered through conscious acts of resistance against the way things ought to be. Mr. Borland gave us such an act this week. His career may by over. But I’d bet a great deal we will hear his name again.