The NFL's early retiree: Is Chris Borland the beginning of the end for pro football as we know it?
Mar 17, 2015 | 1:22 PM
It's been an eventful a week for Baltimore area teams, from the good (University of Maryland's women's and men's basketball teams earn first and fourth seeds, respectively, in the NCAA tournaments) to the bad (the suspension of five University of Maryland, Baltimore County's women's lacrosse players for bullying freshmen teammates on social media). But the most noteworthy announcement in the sports world involved a retirement of a player who most people in Maryland probably couldn't pick out of a crowd.
Chris Borland, 24, a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers who has played just one season in the National Football League, has decided to call it quits. What's exceptional about this is that Mr. Borland didn't lack for talent — the third round draft pick out of the University of Wisconsin was regarded as one of the top rookies at his position and successfully filled in for an injured all-pro six games into the season — but made a calculated decision that the risk of continuing to play professional football, specifically, the prospect of a head injury, wasn't worth the reward.
The choice is likely to send shock waves through the sport, and not just with fellow players. Mr. Borland says he's healthy and hasn't suffered concussions that would put him at greater risk of further brain injury. Rather, he's weighed the pros and cons of playing his position under any circumstances and recognized, as rational people might be prone to do, that permanent, severe brain injury is not something to take lightly even when there are potentially millions of dollars on the table.
That's a message that ought to worry NFL executives whose recent steps to reduce concussions through reforms such as rule changes that penalize helmet-to-helmet collisions and more restrictive injury protocols have been insufficient. Last season, the NFL reported 123 player concussions, which was a drop from previous years but still a significant number. A pending lawsuit has linked these head injuries to serious health problems players have suffered in retirement, many involving loss of cognitive function.
Is a game, even one that pays players $540,000 per season as Mr. Borland was reportedly set to earn this year, really worth the risk of early dementia? Years ago, that choice might have looked easy, but that was before the seriousness of brain injury — what players of an earlier era might have called getting one's "bell rung" — was widely understood. The league's own studies suggest they expect at least one-third of retired players to develop cognitive problems later in life.
If relatively high-risk professions such as coal-mining or utility lineman racked up those kind of numbers, we'd expect occupational safety regulators to crack down. But the NFL rarely gets investigated for any incidents short of a football player's death. Part of the problem may be that brain injuries are not as obvious as a torn knee ligament or dislocated shoulder (although football players suffer plenty of those types of injuries, too).
We have heard the frustration of Ravens fans and others who root for professional football teams that rule changes are "ruining" the game. And there's no question that some reforms are proving more effective at preventing injury-producing collisions than others. But the bottom line needs to be the safety of the players, and in this, the NFL is still coming up more than a few yards short. That's something Mr. Borland likely understands all too well: In a league dominated by bigger, faster athletes and one that has become more pass-oriented than ever, the players are lined up in a high-stakes game of Russian Roulette where any given bone-crunching open-field tackle could haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Unless further steps are taken to prevent serious head injuries, we strongly suspect that a lot more young players will make similar early retirement choices — at least while they have the mental faculties to weigh the options so clearly. Surveys suggest parents are already growing more reluctant to allow their children to play the game. But even if that's not the case and the lure of money and fame is too great, we ought not tolerate these awful head injuries for the sake of mere spectacle. This is not Rome, and M&T Bank Stadium is not the Colosseum.