The news that budding football star Chris Borland left the NFL on basic health and safety grounds is still reverberating, and not just in the sports world. On Sunday, Borland appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation and said that he will be returning most of his original signing bonus to the 49ers. He also responded to the league office’s reaction to his decision, which was that “the game has never been safer.” Borland said, “I think football is inherently dangerous and that’ll never change so long as we have football. Talking about the culture of safety is really irrelevant.”
He spoke about his passion for the “visceral” violence of the sport but also said, “That doesn’t mean football players are pieces of meat. I think the most important people to convey that message to is the football player himself. You’re not a commodity, you’re a person.”
Borland’s decision to leave the game has had major ramifications. Most critically, he has reframed the debate about tackle football from the one pushed by so many sports-radio time-fillers and right-wing radio jocks: that what we have is a fight between people who love the game and mollycoddled commie femi-nazis who want to bubble-wrap our children and then ban the sport. Borland has moved the discussion toward what the real debate actually is: on one side, there are people who believe that the NFL should be transparent about the health risks that come with the game, especially as they are now running football clinics around the country for children; and on the other side, we have a multibillion-dollar corporation obfuscating the actual dangers, relying instead on PR-meisters like Frank Luntz to come up with sound bites and action-plans to convince the public that all is well, and it is safe for your children to come out and play.
Borland has been able to reframe this debate by rooting his decision in very direct personal terms. This on its own has started a political dialogue about the league without his looking like he is in any way “grandstanding” or looking for the spotlight. He has done this with purpose. In attempting to figure out how he was going to make and then announce this decision, Borland spoke to many both inside and outside the game, but one such conversation is particularly fascinating, especially for those who know their political sports history: Dave Meggyesy. The one-time Cardinals linebacker played in the 1960s and then, like Borland, became part of that tiny group of players who walked away from the sport while still healthy and in demand. Meggyesy left not over health concerns but because he believed that the league’s violence made the country more desensitized to the war in Vietnam, which he vehemently opposed. In 1970 Meggyesy wrote and published the classic sports memoir, Out of Their League and went on to become West Coast director of the National Football League Players’ Association.
I spoke to Meggyesy this week. He told me that they first met after Meggyesy gave a lecture in one of Borland’s history classes at The University of Wisconsin. A group went out to dinner and Meggyesy found him to be “a very sharp, good guy and a person who was really looking at the game: mainly what he would need to succeed in the NFL.”
Before Borland made this decision, Meggyesy and he spoke again. As Meggyesy described it, “We had some e-mail communication back and forth over the past year. Over the phone we’ve talked a couple of times and at one point, he asked me if I knew how to connect him up with the Fainaru brothers, who wrote the book League of Denial that showed how the league has spent decades basically denying that there’s any connection or relationship between head trauma and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a debilitating brain disease). He was, at that point, in the research phase. I also talked to some friends that connected him to some neuroscientists who are researching this and getting a real good picture of what is going on out there. He really did his homework, and when he was done I don’t think he believed he could trust the league to give him the straight skinny on brain injuries. When we talked about a month ago, he told me he had made the decision, and because of these neurological concerns he was going to walk. He of course, asked me to keep it quiet—and I did—and wanted to know what my opinion was. I said I thought it was his decision, but it certainly made a lot of sense. I also said that how you leave the game is very important. I said, ‘If you are able to raise the question of the game’s safety for parents and concerned people, that would be a very important thing to do.’ And my sense of what he’s done, the way he did leave the game, clearly did raise that question. He’s done it with a great deal of integrity, a great deal of intelligence, and that’s why a lot of players have supported him.”
I asked Meggyesy if he believed we should view Borland’s decision as a personal or political statement. “Well, it’s kind of how you define political,” he said. “I think it’s definitely personal, but I think that Chris is a person who has a larger social conscience. So in the sense of it being political, in the sense of moving the larger social consciousness in a positive direction, yes, I think he basically did that. And he’s a kind of guy who thinks in those terms. He gets that it’s not just about him; it’s about what can have a positive impact and move things in a positive direction. I think that really did happen.”
As impressed as Meggyesy was with Chris Borland, he was disgusted beyond words with the response to Borland by the NFL and their immediate pivot toward saying that “the sport has never been safer” as well as their pointing to their own study that states, “Concussions are down 25% over the last three years.”
Meggyesy said, “Oh, you shouldn’t take those statistics seriously at all. Of course, the league is not going to support him in this. Of course they’re going to try to say football’s safe. Well, football’s not safe. They talk about concussions when what we’re really talking about is brain damage. If you play this game, you’re going to walk away damaged. That’s why Chris Borland, who loves this game, who was ready to star this season, left.”
That last point is what gives the NFL ownership night-sweats above all else. Chris Borland had a golden opportunity at football stardom. But he looked at the NFL Dream, then looked at reports on brain injuries, and decided it just wasn’t worth it. He won’t be the last.
[The interview with Dave Meggyesy was edited down strictly for flow.]