To understand Chris Borland’s decision to retire, look across the country, at another prominent young former NFL player: Aaron Hernandez.
Hernandez is a year older than Borland. He, too, could be starring in the NFL next season, but he is in a Massachusetts courtroom instead, on trial for murdering his acquaintance Odin Lloyd. The trial is not going well for Hernandez, and even if he is somehow acquitted, he faces another trial for a separate double-murder case.
It sure looks like Hernandez will spend the rest of his life in jail.
And when he sits there, at age 50, he may be better off than if he had stayed in the NFL.
Think about it. Former Bears safety Dave Duerson committed suicide at age 50, after battling depression; Duerson shot himself in the chest, apparently to preserve his brain for science. He was later found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease associated with head trauma. Hall of Famer Junior Seau killed himself at 43. He also was behaving erratically and struggling mightily, and he also had CTE.
CTE is not universal, and it is not terribly predictable. Steve Young and Troy Aikman were both forced into retirement partly because of concussions, and now they are star television analysts. But there have been so many horror stories and tragedies that when the 49ers’ Borland walks away, telling ESPN he is worried about head trauma, other players understand his decision.
When analysts describe Borland as a rising star, that’s not hype. If anything, they’re underselling it. Borland was already one of the best linebackers in the league. He was a year or so away from his reputation catching up to his production. There is no way to know how long Borland could have played, or how well—the NFL chews up bodies, which is why he retired. But it’s reasonable to think he walked away from at least $50 million in future earnings, and possibly twice that.
Borland wasn’t fighting the lingering effects of concussions, like former Lions first-round-pick Jahvid Best, who was also forced out of the game. Borland was healthy. He loved football. He could have kept playing and become obscenely wealthy.
He decided it wasn’t worth it. Can you fault him?
A lot of people will say this is a death knell for the NFL, or at least a game-changer. Well, we’ll see. The reality right now is that unlike many players, the NFL is as healthy as it’s ever been. Revenue streams are overflowing. The game is fun to watch. The NFL is the strongest entertainment product in this country. Borland’s retirement will trigger a hundred news stories and a thousand columns, but I doubt it will affect TV ratings in the fall.
Sure, a lot of kids and their parents will decide football is not worth the risk. That could eventually affect the quality and popularity of the NFL, but we won’t see any real effects for years, if we ever do.
The NFL does not have a financial problem. It has a health crisis, and it's facing a moral crossroads. And this is where the league needs leadership that it frankly has not had.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has sold himself as the agent of a safer game, and in some ways that is true. Rules changes and player education have helped to a degree. But they came after years of denials, dishonesty and stonewalling, and ultimately the changes haven’t been dramatic enough. Ask Chris Borland.
Goodell can’t rub his hands together and save his players’ brains. But he can stop sponsoring the nonsense that comes out of the league office far too often.
He can stop pushing an 18-game schedule at a time when 16 games is too risky for many players. He can stop with the disingenuous assertions that Thursday Night Football is safer than Sunday games, and that the average team only suffers three or four concussions per year. No reasonable person could believe that. It makes players think the league only reaches conclusions it wants to reach, like when a five-year-old looks at clothes and toys all over the floor and declares he has cleaned his room.
Goodell and the NFL have been trapped: If they admit the problem, it hurts the business, but if they go on with business, it perpetuates the problem. They have tried to finesse their way out of it. It has not been an admirable performance.
Goodell has set a $25 billion revenue target for his league, and he might hit it. Well, yay! But at what price? How many more Chris Borlands do we need? How many Dave Duersons and Junior Seaus?
The NFL should start with a pair of symbolic but meaningful moves: publicly announce that the 18-game season is dead, and then declare that 2015 is the last year of Thursday Night Football. Players will appreciate the gestures. And then the NFL can go about the important business of making pro football reasonably safe by the standards of a civilized society in 2015.
There will always be injuries. There are in every sport. But the risk should not be so great that the reward is meaningless. If the NFL spent enough money, it could probably produce a safer helmet. It might even be so safe that Chris Borland would wear it. In the meantime, you might be better off in handcuffs.