On Monday evening, 49ers linebacker Chris Borland announced his retirement after just one (stellar) season. The 2014 third-rounder out of Wisconsin says concerns over concussions and their longterm effects drove him to the decision.
Borland is the latest, but youngest, in a string of prominent players who recently decided to retire at 30 years old or younger, including Patrick Willis, Jake Locker, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Jason Worilds.
Here's some of what's been said/written/tweeted since Borland's announcement:
Borland's father, Jeff, on his son's decision:
Oh, I don't know. I think maybe it's one of those affirming things as a parent, you know, that maybe somewhere along the line you accidentally did something right," the elder Borland told FOX Sports by phone Tuesday morning from his office at The Borland Group in Dayton, Ohio. "Chris has had a great network of friends and family, beginning with his sister and brothers. So when it came time to make the decision, the support for his decision was unanimous and very positive. And I think maybe that helped him do it.
The NFL's senior VP of health and safety policy, Jeff Miller, in an official statement:
We respect Chris Borland's decision and wish him all the best. Playing any sport is a personal decision. By any measure, football has never been safer and we continue to make progress with rule changes, safer tackling techniques at all levels of football, and better equipment, protocols and medical care for players. 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.
Of course, safer isn't the same as safe. As Ken Belson of the Times notes, many parents aren't buying the NFL's claims:
But the increasing evidence of links between repeated head trauma and long-term cognitive problems has persuaded more parents to steer their children into sports like baseball, basketball and soccer, and the decision by a highly regarded player like Borland to leave the N.F.L. at a young age might accelerate that trend.
A recent Bloomberg Politics poll found that half of Americans did not want their sons playing football. A separate survey by Robert Morris University showed that nearly half of those polled said that boys should not be allowed to play tackle football until they reached high school.
Doug Farrar doesn't trust the NFL, and doesn't see why players should either:
The NFL denied for decades that football had any relation to head trauma and that head trauma had any relation to CTE, rolling out a truly shameful array of medical "experts" who clearly did not have their patients' best interests in mind. It was public pressure that forced the league to admit those connections, and commissioner Roger Goodell had to be publicly shamed by Congress and beaten down by various class-action lawsuits from former players to take any steps at all in the right direction.
Still, most of those steps are diversions. The NFL doesn't use the best possible helmet technology, it doesn't track concussions as well as it could given the evidence available, and a lot of what comes out of the league offices on the subject sounds like so much spin, whether it is or not, because it has so often been. Therefore, players have no real reason to believe that the league will look out for them.
If the NFL truly wants to show that it cares about player safety, then Michael Rosenberg suggests some actions on its part:
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.
Adam Schefter, shamelessly carrying water for the league that supports his own livelihood:
@AdamSchefter so we only work 6 months out of the year...?— Brian Hartline (@brianhartline) March 17, 2015
Rams defensive end Chris Long, son of Howie, suggests it would make sense for others to follow Borland's lead:
WOW. I loved Chris Borland's game but I can't fault him for calling it quits. His concerns are real. Still it takes a man to do the logical.— Chris Long (@JOEL9ONE) March 17, 2015
I don't feel bad for Borland. I feel happy for him. He's made a tough choice.— Chris Long (@JOEL9ONE) March 17, 2015
Denver's own Brandon Marshall doesn't appear to share Borland's concerns:
So P. Willis and Chris Borland? They know something that we don’t?— Brandon Marshall (@BMarshh54) March 17, 2015
There are, of course, many examples of current and former players (and fans) who don't respect Borland's choice. But Dan Diamond says those once dominant opinions have become the minority:
But here’s what really should terrify the NFL: The shifting of norms.
I trawled the message boards on Monday night, from Niners Nation to ESPN, looking for fans who were bashing Borland’s decision. (After all, sports-focused websites are a reliable cesspool of hate and vitriol.)
But almost unanimously, I saw fans applauding Borland instead.
“As a 49ers fan, obviously I would love to have him anchor our defense,” a reader named Peter Saluk wrote on ESPN.com “As a human being, (I) wish nothing but health, success, and happiness to Chris and his family. It’s difficult to walk away from literally tens of millions of dollars in his case, but quality of life is more important.”
Saluk’s comment was the most popular on the site.
When your own fans readily accept the data that your product is a killer — when concussion awareness outpaces deep-seated loyalty — your sport can’t remain mass-market entertainment forever. At some point, the morality questions around football will be too embarassing to ignore.
Chris Chase thinks Borland isn't quite starting a trend here:
So praise Chris Borland for his decision, but don’t expect dozens of players to follow his lead. Did running backs follow Robert Smith out the door when the Minnesota Vikings star unexpectedly quit at 28 years old, just after the best season of his career? People probably thought that’d be a game-changer too.
But the money, the love of the game and the love of the lifestyle are going to keep players going, no matter the future risk. And if some, like Borland, should retire early, others will quickly take their place. Men and women in dangerous professions quit all the time because of the risks involved. But others remain as test pilots or astronauts or firemen/firewomen or in the military because that’s what they choose to do.
Indeed, Bill Barnwell says we should be careful not to read too much into one young man's retirement:
The player pool for professional football is just so enormous that it’s going to take thousands of people making this same decision over several generations before the future of the game is seriously threatened. In 20 years, maybe the star linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers will be a player who wouldn’t have made the NFL without hundreds of other possible football players choosing another path (or having football removed as an option by their parents). Will 49ers fans cheer him any less than they would if he had been the best possible candidate to play linebacker in America?
But in conclusion, Barnwell says we all have to be constantly reassessing our own feelings for football:
Even if it doesn’t directly lead to the end of the sport, football is becoming more and more of a contradiction. The reaction to Borland’s decision, thankfully, was mostly one of respect and support. Outside of the usual few idiots, Borland was praised for standing up for himself and making a choice to protect himself and his future, for recognizing the risks of playing professional football and making a logical decision to do something else with his life.
But that’s the contradiction. Nobody doubts that Borland is making the smart decision, and yet we’re also not simultaneously encouraging every other NFL player to follow his lead. If the logic makes sense for Borland (and I think it does), why wouldn’t it make sense for Wilhoite or Moody or Skov or anybody else? How inherently wrong is football that a guy who could have made millions of dollars over the course of his career is throwing that away and we all agree it’s the right idea? And if it’s that wrong, why are any of us watching?
“I don’t think [football] is worth the risk,” Borland told Outside the Lines. It’s not a question of who will think so. It’s who possibly could?