By Ken Reed
I wrote the other day about San Francisco 49’ers linebacker Chris Borland’s decision to retire from football at age 24, following a very good rookie season. I touched on how it took a lot of courage for Borland to face all the research about football and brain trauma. Many others — players, parents, coaches, etc. — have resorted to avoidance behavior in light of the studies on football-related concussions and repetitive sub-concussive hits to the head. I also wrote about the courage Borland exhibited in extricating himself from the macho-man-admit-no-fear-suck-it-up football culture.
I wasn’t alone in writing about Chris Borland. The Borland decision inspired a lot of columnists and bloggers to weigh in with their thoughts. The social media world lit up with tweets on Borland’s decision — pro and con.
Out of this marketplace of ideas on the subject, I think one writer, Bill Barnwell of Grantland had the most insightful and thought-provoking piece of them all.
Barnwell wrote, “The choice he made to retire is just about the toughest thing I can imagine a person doing, recognizing that their dream isn’t sustainable and making a conscious choice to head in a different direction after years of fighting to succeed.”
Barnwell also made a clear distinction between the moral courage Borland exhibited and the physical courage that football players are commonly known for. What Borland did in leaving a football culture he’s been immersed in since childhood, took more courage than shedding a 300-pound offensive lineman and taking on Marshawn Lynch head on at the line of scrimmage.
Barnwell also asked some hard questions about other football players who are in different situations than Borland was.
“More than anything, Borland was brave enough to make a logical choice that doesn’t fit what others expected,” wrote Barnwell.
“And when I think about the future of the sport and (far more important) the players who will play it, I worry about the guys who aren’t in the same boat. What about the players who are already so beat up by the game that they worry about being unable to function after they retire, the ones who have a voice in the back of their head telling them they should quit while simultaneously wondering whether they should make as much money as they can while their body can still hold up? What do they do? What about the young players who feel like they have to play football because they can’t do anything else as well?”
Barnwell ends his piece with perhaps the toughest question of all for those of us who’ve spent a great part of our lives enjoying football — as a player, fan, or both
“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?”
Now, I understand that not everyone agrees with Borland’s decision, but Barnwell’s point is well-made nonetheless. At the very least, nobody can argue that Borland was being irrational when he made this decision.
And what does that say about the future of this game?
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of FansPrint
- League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.