Chris Borland sure got our attention.
My pals in the Bay Area are still buzzing over the 49ers middle linebacker who started last season abruptly retiring after playing just that lone season in the NFL because of his concerns about the long-term effects of head trauma from playing football.
This was the cover of Wednesday's Mercury News in San Jose:
Mark Purdy, the longtime columnist with the Mercury News I last saw again at last month's Super Bowl, wrote an interesting perspective on what this may mean. I posted it here on the blog's comments section and Twitter feed Monday night, hours after ESPN's story by Mark Fainaru-Wada (with whom I once as a Sacramento Bee writer spent covering a San Francisco Giants baseball series at St. Louis) and his brother Steve Fainaru broke that Borland was quitting.
Purdy had talked last year with long-time agent Leigh Steinberg (the basis for the Tom Cruise movie "Jerry McGuire"). Fourteen months before Borland chose his future brain over his current life as an NFL starter, Steinberg had predicted to Purdy the eventual stratification of the NFL on socio-economic grounds. Steinberg told Purdy the wise players with educations and ultimately alternative paths to earning livings would eventually give up the sport because of the risk of cognitive damage. That, Steinberg predicted, would leave the sport almost exclusively made up of players from lower walks of life that must risk their brain health to play because they can't make money any other way than by playing football.
“What will happen is, football won’t die,” Steinberg told Purdy in January 2014. “But the socio-economic demographics of the game will change, so that the same people who play will be those people who choose to box and pursue other such sports.”
Here again is Purdy's entire story, in the wake of Borland's decision. At the very least, it makes you think. It may make some act. Or it may not.
News Tribune columnist Dave Boling, who played for the University of Louisville and has the aches and bones to prove it, writes today of Borland's retirement: "the real value in the short term being the way it advances the important debate of player safety."
"Borland brings a currency to the issue that has been lacking," Boling writes, "as the focus has been on retired players now suffering (from post-career brain damage)."
And this, in today's Los Angeles Times, from a fellow former 49ers linebacker: "It's a decision that should wake up the powers that be," said Gary Plummer, an NFL linebacker for 12 seasons who is in the early stages of dementia. "I think the retirement of a young, up-and-coming player should be a watershed moment for the NFL that something needs to be done for the safety of the game."
Here's a breakdown from CNBC of the money Borland is leaving behind by choosing his future over his now.
Not that every NFL player is willing to do the same:
Wagner is the Seahawks' All-Pro middle linebacker. He's entering the final season of his rookie contract. He is about to get a mega contract extension from Seattle that Borland was still years of proving away from even having the chance for with San Francisco. To players in Wagner's position, that huge cash windfall makes the risk worth the reward.
To be sure, most current NFL players I've interviewed feel whatever the physical toll now is worth the payoff this season or next -- if ever. One of the few who didn't, Patrick Kerney, retired following the 2009 season after playing in 37 games over three, injury-limited seasons for the Seahawks. He did so after telling me he was concerned with his quality of life after football.
I see, and have lived through on a much smaller scale than Borland has, both sides of this.
I grew up playing tackle football in the Ohio River Valley. My steel town, Steubenville, Ohio, and my experience in it, was just like this (hopefully without some of the '80s cheese in here, but probably not):
Our town had about 25,000 citizens when I was in high school in the late '80s. Half of them, 12,000 people, would jam our stadium on Friday nights to watch us play. We had a video scoreboard. Our games were on television. For road games we had chartered, plush buses drive us to pregame buffet breakfasts and a stay of a few hours at hotels so we could get off our feet and have film and position meetings. It just like a college team does before its games. We got pulled out of class to do media interviews.
Football was not small in my town.
My father was a chiropractor since the first days chiropractic was born in the 1950s. He knew too much about head and neck and spine injuries. He didn't want me to play the sport. I stayed out of tackle football until seventh grade, playing flag until then. The first varsity game I started for Steubenville Big Red in 1987 I got my feet flipped out from under me while leaping to block an extra point after an early touchdown, landed on my head and got a concussion. Not that I acknowledged it. I couldn't remember how the score got to be what it was later in the first half. But I didn't tell anyone except my best friend and teammate on the sideline. There was no Zackery Lystedt Law for youth sports in Ohio in 1987. I didn't tell anyone. I wanted to play. I finished the game, practiced all the next week and played the next game. That's what football players did. That's what many, from youth leagues through the pros, still do.
I loved my football experience through when it ended when I didn't make the Army football team as a slow, freshman walk-on. The year-round training, the two-a-days in 90-degree heat and 90-percent humidity taught me determination and perseverance. The pair of Ohio Division-II state championship games I played in inside the famed "Horseshoe" at Ohio State in front of 25,000-plus people for each of those title games taught me you often get out of an endeavor as much as you decide to put in. Football was an experience that shaped me.
Now, 26 years later, my only son is 11 years old. He loves football. He gets up before the rest of the house at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning so he can watch his favorite show, ESPN's weekly College Gameday. He's fast, tall for his age and athletic, playing three sports pretty competitively and enjoying them all.
Football is not one of them. And it won't be. My wife and I have decided it's not worth the risk. She, like my dad, knows too much. She's a speech therapist at Children's Hospital here in Seattle. She sees each day what head injuries can do to make a young life far more difficult and unfair than any should ever be.
And I'm fine with that. My son is, too. More and more parents and sons are getting OK with it.
This, in that LA Times story today, from Chris Nowinski, executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute that studies brain trauma:
"If Chris Borland won't take a half-million dollars a year to get hit in the head, parents should be asking why am I putting my 7-year-old out there."
If that doesn't get a parent thinking, he or she isn't thinking.
Here's a corollary reason my son isn't playing football: I don't trust or like what I see is generally being taught in youth football. And I'm not alone in that thinking (but as that link points out, the Seahawks and Pete Carroll are seen as innovators in changing what kids are taught about tackling in football).
We'll see if Borland and his stunning retirement is a harbinger of things to come in the league, or if it is merely an exception. We'll see if Steinberg's prediction to Purdy on the future of football proves true or false. The NFL isn't going to end because Borland retired, or if others follow him in making a similar choice. This is a $9-billion -- with a 'b' -- per-year industry that remains the most popular sport around. The most-watched program in U.S. television history was the Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl last month; 114.4 million of us tuned in. And that was after a season filled with concussion lawsuits, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his fiancee in a hotel elevator, Minnesota Vikings running back and 2012 league MVP Adrian Peterson beating his son with a switch -- and with commissioner Roger Goodell and the league infuriating and/or disgusting the public with how they handled it all.
Some say Borland's retirement will be forgotten by next week, replaced by the latest big free-agent signing or offseason misconduct event, or next month's uneviling of the 2015 league schedule. I say no. What Chris Borland's choice should do -- I predict will do -- is raise awareness even more that this uber-popular sport we all love to watch isn't for everyone to play.
Increasingly, soberingly, it may not be for anyone we know or truly love.
--By the way, that "due diligence" the Seahawks were doing over exploring the possibility of adding free-agent pass rusher Greg Hardy is now over. He signed with Dallas today, a contract that reportedly could be worth up to $13 million in 2015 after performance incentives.
And Michael Bennett remains a Seahawk.
--So does D'Anthony Smith. The Seahawks today re-signed the defensive tackle, who was a free agent after missing all of last season on injured reserve.
--The Browns beat writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer was first to report the Seahawks have agreed to terms with Browns defensive tackle Ahytba Rubin on a one-year contract:
Rubin was Cleveland's sixth-round pick in 2008. He began starting in 2010, when he excelled with 82 tackles, two sacks. That earned him a $26.5 million, four-year contract extension with the Browns. He moved to more of a true nose tackle last season, and though his statistics plummeted Browns coaches said that was because he played injured.
Rubin could be an option for Seattle to Tony McDaniel as a nose tackle and insurance if Brandon Mebane doesn't come back strongly by this summer from his torn hamstring,
--Tight end Tony Moeaki, no longer needed in Seattle after the Seahawks acquired Jimmy Graham, signs with Atlanta on the same day fellow free agent and backup Tarvaris Jackson visits Miami: