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With Chris Borland deciding risk not worth reward, questions linger for NFL

When players like Chris Borland opt to not continue making the sacrifice football requires, it’s a pretty damning indictment against the NFL.

The forecast calls for rampant over-simplification today, in the wake of the news that promising young San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland has opted to cast a whole new meaning to the term “one and done.’’

But Borland’s abrupt retirement after a single NFL season does seem to strike yet another blow against a concept that should cease being thought of as part of pro football’s future: 18-game season, anyone?

Chris Borland's retirement brings price of NFL longevity into focus

Sorry, Sean Gilbert, but selling that money-making innovation to the players as an integral part of your bid for the NFLPA’s executive director position last weekend may have represented the epitome of bad timing. Because if anything, recent developments and trends have shown us that NFL players seem to want less of the game, not more.

We can assign slightly different meaning and impetus for all the recent early retirements in the NFL, but the common thread between Patrick Willis and Jason Worilds and Jake Locker and Borland is that they all decided they no longer needed football. On their own terms, in their own way, they all walked away before they had no other option, choosing to start their post-playing career life far earlier than expected.

It’s as if players have finally started to put themselves before the game, choosing to declare victory and get out, for their own reasons, following their own sense of timing. We can question it all we want from the sidelines, but when some of the game’s youngest players are opting to not continue making the sacrifice football requires, it’s a pretty damning indictment against the notion that the NFL must grow the game by lengthening the season roughly 11 percent. 

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​Borland was an undersized football-playing machine at both Wisconsin—where I was lucky enough to see him play live more than once—and San Francisco, something of a poster child for the high-intensity, hold-nothing-back type of player that coaches adore. When he suited up, he sold out for the game, and there was a reckless abandon to his style of play. And his career looked set to take off now that Willis had stepped away, placing him in even a more pivotal role for the 49ers.   

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So when he decides to play it safe rather than sorry in terms of the game’s potential brain injury risk, it resonates. When Borland chooses to not play recklessly with his future, it speaks to a mindset that could grow in popularity, with younger players having so much more information and enlightenment when it comes to the long-term effects that football can inflict.

We have seemingly arrived at the point where the game’s dangers are at last being portrayed accurately, with players understanding that there are great costs that come with playing football, not just great benefits. It’s the lifelong dream of so many to play in the NFL, but if played long enough, football can impose a lifelong burden as well. Not many, but some are choosing to not play that game of chance any longer. Borland among them.     

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It’s impossible to really know or intelligently project what the recent trend of early retirements might portend for the NFL in the long term. But as the game goes through some necessary and significant changes in the name of player safety, Borland’s example will stand out as the first of its kind.

To be the player he wanted to be in the crucial career-oriented years just ahead, he saw a risk of not being the person he wanted to be over the span of his lifetime. And he couldn’t reconcile those two realities enough to stay in the game. Perhaps some day, if football survives and still thrives with players who opt for shorter careers, Borland, 24, will be seen as the face of early change. A player who played strong, but not long, and got out while he was still ahead.     

For Borland, playing major college football in the Big Ten and just one year in the NFL was surprisingly a case of enough is enough. Wanting any more of the game, he deemed, wasn’t worth the price he might have to pay to get it. It’s a lesson the NFL should heed. The commissioner, the owners and even some fans might crave it, but the 18-game regular season is an idea that does not serve the players, and without them there is no game.

Not to over-simplify, but less really can mean more.