The NFL isn’t going to wither and die. The sport of professional football isn’t going to become extinct because of the radical decision of Chris Borland to retire rather than assume the risk of ending up as another cautionary tale of the long-term effects of concussions.
Borland is a trailblazer, but he’s not the NFL’s grim reaper. He is a messenger of the sport’s evolution, not its dissolution.
In all the debate over the decision of Borland, who called it a career at age 24 after one season playing linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers because of his concerns about neurodegenerative brain conditions like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) what has been lost is what the game has gained. Players now have a choice.
Borland is part of the first generation of NFL players armed with enough reliable information to decide for themselves whether playing professional football is a risk worth taking. His decision wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago, when the NFL was burying its head in the sand about concussions and trying to bury any research that showed a link between football and brain damage.
Those were the dark ages. Now, we’re in a period of concussion enlightenment. That is worth celebrating, regardless of your stance on Borland.
Unlike previous generations of NFL players, who were plied with euphemisms about getting “dinged” and pressured to adhere to testosterone-fueled canon about sucking it up, current players have the opportunity to decide for themselves when the risk outweighs the reward.
That’s the most significant progress in the NFL since the forward pass.
Borland’s decision reminded me of what former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who has dealt with the effects of concussions, said at a concussion conference at Boston Children’s Hospital in 2012.
“A lot of times when people say, ‘Guys knew what they were getting into. They know the risk.’ Well, to a point. No one saw this coming,” said Johnson. “No one saw the links of being multiply concussed can lead to long-term emotional issues. So, you can’t claim ignorance anymore.
“Let guys make informed decisions. I didn’t have the information back then, and guys who played a while ago didn’t know any of this. Now, they know. Let them make an informed decision whether or not they want to perhaps expose themselves to this.”
The NFL is the now the big tobacco of sports. It comes with a warning label.
An informed decision doesn’t mean mimicking Borland. It doesn’t mean that players will behave differently than their predecessors when asked to weigh their athletic mortality against their actual mortality. But it means they’ll have a clear idea of what the potential consequences are.
That’s all anyone with free will can ask for.
In the aftermath of Borland’s landmark retirement, two extremes have emerged.
There is one camp heralding Borland as the harbinger of football’s doom. There is another saying that the risk of CTE is being exaggerated and that the chilling tales of former players like Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, and Junior Seau, all of whom committed suicide, are rare.
Discourse on this issue shouldn’t be centered on attacking Borland’s character or demonizing football. It’s about personal choice.
If someone decides they want to play pro football, they’re going to find a way to justify that decision. If they decide the risk is too great, they’re going to justify that decision as well.
Even Borland, who consulted with neurology experts, including Dr. Robert Stern, the director of clinical research for the BU CTE Center, said he couldn’t quantify just how at risk he was for ending up with a progressive degenerative brain disease if he kept playing.
“To me, that risk isn’t worth it,” Borland told ESPN writers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada.
That’s all that matters to him.
Certainly, Borland’s decision to preemptively retire to avoid brain injury has to be of some concern to the NFL. It’s not good publicity for the product.
So, it wasn’t surprising that the NFL came firing back, talking about a 25 percent decrease in concussions, heralding its efforts to make the game safer, and trumpeting participation numbers.
(Last October, the National Federation of State High School Association reported the first increase in football participation numbers in five years. There was an 0.6 percent increase in participation among boys.)
Still, it was a bit spurious when the league trotted out Pittsburgh Steelers neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Maroon to defend the game and intimate that kids were more at risk riding their bikes or skateboarding than playing football.
It was a classic misdirection play.
Faced with the tide of public opinion and a lawsuit from former players that ostensibly will result in a settlement number that begins with a B, as in a billion dollars, the NFL has made efforts to make the game safer and reduce the rate of concussions.
Still, there is only so much that can be done. Football is not a contact sport. It is a collision sport with freakishly big, strong, and fast human beings colliding repeatedly.
Broken bones, snapped ligaments, and, yes, concussions never will be fully eradicated from the game, unless it becomes two-hand touch.
Parents will have to determine if they’re comfortable with their children playing the game. Players will have to decide if they’re comfortable continuing to pursue it.
Borland was not. He should be admired for having the courage to go against the grain and follow his conviction. It took more bravery for Borland to call it a career than to keep playing.
If the NFL is smart, it will dictate that the 49ers take the returned portion of Borland’s signing bonus and donate it to concussion research.
The concussion risk is real, and now so is the opportunity for players to decide for themselves if it’s worth taking.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.