When veteran players recently retired from the NFL early because of the cumulative effects of injuries, their fans seemed saddened but understanding.
But a different dialogue takes place when a healthy 24-year-old retires after one season, citing long-term health concerns, and walks away from a promising career and millions of dollars.
The retirement of San Francisco linebacker Chris Borland this week variously has been seen as an isolated case unique to the player, or the yawning chasm of doom that is opening up to swallow the National Football League.
It’s much bigger than the first, and much less dire than the latter; the real value in the short term being the way it advances the important debate of player safety.
Spotlighting Borland’s case as a critical pivot point might be an overstatement, but it’s far better than the years of the league ignoring (or concealing) warnings about the dangers of brain trauma and, in some cases, exploiting the welfare of the players — current and past.
Borland told ESPN this week that he’d been aware of the health dangers, particularly of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The league, obviously, had paid a settlement to put an end to a suit by former players over concussion-related brain damage.
“Personally, I don’t think the risks are worth the rewards I could gain from football,” Borland said.
The league stance is that the game is safer than it has ever been, with new rules on the books that have caused the rates of concussions to drop.
But Borland brings a currency to the issue that has been lacking, as the focus has been on retired players now suffering from CTE. Documentaries on the suicides of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, related to CTE damage, are particularly compelling.
And last month, Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett spoke publicly about his CTE. Yes, he signed on for a life in football, he said, but he did so “… not knowing that the end was going to be like this.” The damage is real and extreme, he said, and it has to be taken seriously.
Former Seahawks linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski is doing exactly that, putting his Harvard MBA degree to work helping produce wearable technology that will measure head impacts.
In a 2013 interview, Kacyvenski talked about the product, “Checklight,” which carries a chip in a skullcap that is worn under the helmet. It charts contact and issues warnings when they become injurious.
“I want football to thrive and survive and do great things, but it needs to change,” Kacyvenski said at the time. “The game can still be played; it can be done a lot more safely.”
Another hard-hitting former Seahawks linebacker, Chad Brown, commented this week that Borland’s retirement is more of an individual decision rather than the harbinger of doom.
“This was called a game-changer,” Brown said. “People act as if football is now going to be over, and youth football enrollment will be down 90 percent because one guy retired after one year. … Football is not for everyone, and that’s OK. For some people, the risk-versus-reward ratio is out of whack, so they choose to walk away.”
The pushback against the game, itself, “has gone a couple steps too far,” Brown said.
Brown is surely right in the short term. This game has plenty of players drawn by the competition, the profile, and the paychecks of the NFL. Those things are worth the exposure, even an inherently violent game.
But the visibility of the Borland situation easily could affect the game’s supply chain — young football players.
When a player already in the NFL, with all the rewards at his fingertips, decides the risk is too great, what does that say to a junior high player, who has such a minuscule chance of getting within sniffing distance of the big payoff? Why risk it?
As for parents signing the permission slips for their kids to play, how many can watch Tony Dorsett on television talking about his health problems, and still keep their minds open to the part where Dorsett says he would still allow a son to play football?
Borland’s retirement is fascinating. It’s not a game-changer yet.
But it’s certainly another step toward awareness and serious, substantive debate.