Not a good month for the NFL, when four players under 30 (although seemingly and increasingly most players are under 27, -- if you get to 30 you are an NFL Methusaleh) retire for various reasons. Jake Locker retired because he lost his passion for the game; Jason Worilds did so to pursue other interests. Patrick Willis did so because of injuries, and Chris Borland, who replaced an injured Willis last season, did so because of a fear of what repetitive blows to the head could have on his long-term health.
Which shows, to some degree, that Borland put his Wisconsin history degree to use in researching the effects of the game on him and the cost-benefit analysis for his life as to whether he should continue playing and risk debilitating consequences or quit and hope that all of the hitting he did prior to the ripe old age of 24 doesn't have long-lasting effects.
Seemingly, this is a smart move. Football is a violent sport. Even with rules changes, it is full of collisions. And, in what we've learned about neurological issues, repetitive head-banging (among linemen) might have long-term consequences too, even if the blows aren't as noticeable as those that once appeared on ESPN's ill-advised "All Jacked Up" feature on SportsCenter.
Look, some guys love the game and want to take the risk. They like the rituals, the contact, the violence, the stature and the glory that can come with having had a long and prosperous NFL career. But the sad truth is that NFL careers on average last three years and represent the culmination of football playing for kids who could have started as early as 6. So, by the time a young man is 25, he has had at least a decade and a half of hitting other young men. Most of us are schooled -- in life -- to avoid getting hit if at all possible. After all, it hurts. What's worse -- even if deep down we saw it and knew it decades ago -- is that it could hurt a lot worse as one ages and effect one's ability to function or even live. And despite having a union that has increased its clout, the average NFL player, after taxes, does not come away with nearly enough to create a nest egg to help protect him from all those problems later in life, let alone retire.
Some people play because they love the game and might not be nearly as good at anything else and could have limited earnings potential elsewhere. Others might play because playing then could lead to a career for something similar -- in coaching, in broadcasting, in working for the team's front office. In that sense, the "investment" in an NFL career, even if "short-lived," is worth it. But for those who are in between -- talented enough to do something else for a living outside football and make a good living -- the economic choices (and a choice for a long-term healthy life) can be pretty clear -- get out, and get out as fast as you can.
That's what Chris Borland seems to be saying in his retirement. My guess is that the stats and math guys, the Nate Silver's of the world, could run simulations that show you that based on the average life span of an NFL veteran of so many years and Borland's decision to quit when he did and his potential earnings power elsewhere, that Borland made a superlative choice if he wants to chase his kids on a ball field or play with grand kids and remember their names. After all, there are analytics for everything.
And all this should make the NFL worried, the same way that MLB should be worried that many young people see baseball as too slow a game, one without action and one that their grandfathers took their fathers to. The NFL should be worried, not necessarily because of an occasional retirement like Borland's or even a slew of copycat retirements down the road. It should be worried because fans could migrate if the additional long-term health data get published showing the game's long-term debilitating effects. How many fans will continue to turn out if they know that they are enjoying a game where people could suffer life-threatening injuries as young men and without sufficient remuneration or financial support so that they can take care of themselves and families later on?
The NFL has a serious problem. Sure, it can hire a good publicity firm to isolate the Borland matter (and the 49ers handled the news with grace and dignity), but inside the league's offices they should be looking into how they can make the game safer and protect the participants more. My bet is that down the road football becomes more like lacrosse -- the players will gear up, but there will be much less hitting and perhaps "electronic" means of tackling along the lines of flag or touch football so as to reduce injuries. Sure, the running game might be affected (perhaps Greco-Roman upper-body holds to stop a runner might be adopted), but overall we'll have more football players around walking unaided when they are 70. The public might not like that idea right now or be willing to accept it.
But suppose someone like Chris Borland were your kid. Suppose that you work a nice job, but a job that doesn't get publicity and has its ups and downs. You're pretty good at it, but you're not going to get promoted again, and you work for the teamwork, the brand and the benefits, among other things. Suppose you enjoyed the ritual of going to games on Friday nights in high school and on Saturdays in college. You ended up with an extra bounce in your step because he was a good student and got an athletic scholarship to a big-time school. You traveled to watch him play, went to his bowl games and got a big kick out of his getting drafting and playing well in the NFL. And then he tells you that he's going to hang it all up to go get a master's degree.
What would you say to him? Would you be deflated that you were about to lose your extra cache among the guys at work, where they rallied around you as you shared inside dope as to what Coach Harbaugh was really like and the perks on the private jets that ferried the teams to games? Or would you forget all that and think, "you know what, we raised this kid right. He used his talents to get a scholarship, got his degree and then thought for himself. What a wise decision."
My guess is that for most it would be a little bit of both. Don't discount that NFL cache and the perks that went with it, but don't underestimate the unconditional love of parents and support for decisions. For most people, the latter will trump the former, and Dad will realize that there is more to him -- a lot more -- than just having had a son play in the NFL. The son will realize that while the parents loved his football life, there is a lot more to them than being happy because he was a star player. Together, they will go forward, quickly and perhaps have more time to spend with one another because they will have a better chance to be in the same place.
And the parents can cease worrying that one hit in one game could change their son's life for the worse forever. Deep down, all parents of football players worry about that much more than parents of baseball or basketball players do. And they will be relieved. Perhaps in the summer Chris Borland's biggest risk will come if he tries to jaywalk at a busy intersection in Madison, Wisconsin, en route to a class.
Chris Borland made a wise choice. Football is a dangerous game. We tried to tell ourselves that smoking wasn't bad for people or that too much sugar in the form of soda, ice cream, candy and cookies is okay, but now cigarettes are very expensive and banned in most public places and there is an international diabetes problem. We can tell ourselves that all is okay because the players have assumed the risk and that there just is not enough data, but that's only because we are anesthetizing ourselves away from the blunt truth that football -- and all of the hitting -- can create long-term problems. What's worse is how popular the game is -- at the high school, college and pro level, and, as for the latter two, perhaps because football is a much easier game to bet on than any other because of the point spread. Most Americans love their football -- football is an event, there's ritual, there's pageantry and, yes, there's hitting. And betting, and tailgating and drinking.
Chris Borland's decision compels us to think hard about our pastime and whether all of the violence that young men volunteer to endure is worth it. We'll try to tell ourselves it is because it's always been so.
But we might be wrong.