Chris Borland Retiring from the NFL at Age 24: Bellwether or Anomaly? Yes

Chris Borland Retiring from the NFL at Age 24: Bellwether or Anomaly? Yes

NFL

Chris Borland Retiring from the NFL at Age 24: Bellwether or Anomaly? Yes

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Chris BorlandChris Borland made a decision to walk away from the NFL after one season, in what he called “a proactive move.”

“I feel largely the same, as sharp as I’ve ever been,” Borland told Outside the Lines, “I’m concerned that if you wait ’til you have symptoms, it’s too late.”

Borland, 24 years old, had a promising NFL career ahead of him. He was going to be a starter again next year. He had over 100 tackles as a rookie. Hailing from Kettering, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton, he went to the same high school as Jets center Nick Mangold. He was team captain and MVP, all-state in Ohio, and went on to Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year at Wisconsin.

Bellwether or Anomaly?

Borland’s decision is unique. Go back through NFL history and find someone who had success, and voluntarily retired after one season. Plenty were retired involuntarily for off-the-field issues (Bernard Williams, Odell Thurman come to mind) or career-ending injuries. You really have to go back to before the NFL became fully professionalized in terms of salaries that allowed players to focus year-round, to find top star players who consciously chose to make money elsewhere.

In the short term, it doesn’t matter to the NFL machine.

That tweet is correct for now. It misses the point of the impact for the future. There will be no shortage of players ready to step into that breach, and a league can survive the absence of any one (or dozens) of players.

Impact may not even be the right word. I don’t know if Chris Borland’s decision is going to cause anyone to examine their lives and say, “hey, maybe I shouldn’t do this because he made this decision.” Maybe it will in some cases. But it’s better to say it misses the point of what this represents by proxy.

In the aftermath of Junior Seau’s suicide, I wrote this.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent months, before this news broke, and had not put it down. Part of me wonders if we were made to play football for 25 to 30 years of life, or even 20.

. . .

Medical technology advanced–we could rebuild knees and shoulders and ankles better than ever. When a knee or elbow blew out, you saw it, you fixed it. There is no Dr. Jobe for the brain.

We’re at a scary spot. Nothing is certain. As a parent, you don’t insist on a 5% confidence interval to make decisions. You don’t ask for thirty years worth of data.

Borland cited the suicides of other players–Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, Mike Webster–as part of his decision making. Some of these deaths, and Seau’s, came after Borland was already racking up awards and leading a team in high school.

It’s the Borlands who are 11-14 year olds playing other sports instead of football that will be the real indicator. It’s a kid with good grades and the ability to throw a baseball saying, “you know what, I don’t need this.” But saying it at age 13 instead of age 26 like Jake Locker, who could have had a MLB future (and still might get a shot having been drafted in the past).

It’s the parents who may read the NFL push to say that the youth game is safer, but don’t buy the NFL machine news. Worse yet, it’s the parents with young athletes who try it, hear the euphemisms about “getting a bell rung” or “a little dinged” or other phrasings, but know what’s really going on now with increased awareness. Who see that it’s just endemic to the game where you are trying to teach aggressive kids with $200 specially-designed helmets to “get tough.” Take on that lead blocker! You can’t do that standing up, you end up on your ass. You want to look tough to the teammates, you get lower.

It’s the current youth system, where even if the individuals don’t move on, the collective fuels the competition and the interest in sport, driven from the middle class who invest the time and energy in the early training years, the practice nights on the field after days at work. It’s the kids focusing on basketball and soccer and individual sports on those nights after school. Youth tackle football, like baseball/softball, is an expensive proposition because of equipment and league costs anyways, and can be up to five times more expensive than other sports like basketball and soccer. You need a passionate and capable parenting base to fuel that, not one that may have misgivings.

So, Chris Borland is an anomaly. There’s been no one like him to retire right away. Maybe we’ll see a few more in the next couple of years. But we probably aren’t going to see a wave of those already invested in the game. Most players collecting the paychecks and putting it on the field won’t have his sensibilities, and the game will have to retire them.

And Chris Borland is a bellwether. Decisions like Borland’s will be made much earlier. There won’t be an OTL feature or a press conference held for each. Eliot Wolf won’t see the calls being made in homes, begging to do something else, spending their consumer dollars training the next generation elsewhere. It will take a long time — perhaps more than several decades — for the supply of players to erode the quality of play in the NFL to the extent that this American public will prefer to watch the competition of other sports, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

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