Keith Strudler: After Rookie Season, Chris Borland Calls It A Career
The average NFL career spans all of three years. So from that perspective, the now former San Francisco 49ers linebacker only cheated himself of two years, having successfully completed a strong rookie season. Of course, that’s simply an average, so we’ll never know how long Borland’s career might have spanned. But Borland, who voluntarily left the team and the league, is largely considering the law of averages in his departure, so it’s only fitting means and medians be considered.
Borland walked away from the game, where he was poised to become one of the league’s leaders at his position, because of the well-publicized long-term health risks from repeated concussions and head trauma. Having suffered two documented concussions in his football lifetime, although none in the NFL, Borland decided it was wiser to leave with his full faculties, both now and, as he hopes, when he’s 50 and 60, when the ill effects of this neurological risk may take effect. That decision will cost him over a half a million dollars next season, and even more if he were to fulfill the other two years on his four year deal. No one knows what a next contract would have looked like, assuming there even was a next contract. But rest assured he’d make more right now in a 49ers uniform than he will in his now immediate future, which likely involves going to grad school for sports marketing.
Chris Borland isn’t the first football player to retire because of injury. He’s not even the first in the last several months. In fact, his predecessor Patrick Willis retired at the age of 30 last November because of constant pain in his feet. Players come and go in the NFL, typically not by their own volition. But for most voluntarily retiring athletes, the pain and suffering is no longer worth the relative fame and fortune. And in a league without guaranteed contracts, there’s a lot less playing out the streak than you’ll see in the NBA and baseball, where geriatric millionaires earn what amounts to obscene back pay.
But Borland’s retirement, as it is, is much different than that of say, Barry Sanders, who left the game early, or even Rashard Mendehall, who left the league after six years because he didn’t really enjoy it. Borland isn’t leaving because he dislikes the game, which he doesn’t, or because of ill feelings towards the 49ers, of which he has none. He’s leaving because of the 800 pound gorilla on the field, the fact that increasingly, the game of football is proving to be too risky for too many of its personnel. And unlike broken bones or torn ligaments, these looming health risks are neither preventable, at least now, nor predictable. So it’s one thing to know you might not walk well after five years in the league. It’s completely another to not know if you’ll remember your kids names when your 50. That’s the true existential enemy of the NFL. Not the fear of injury. But rather the fear of the unknown, which is always a cumbersome foe.
Historically, professional athletes accepted particular health risks because of how much they got paid. Or in some case, like with college players or even salary restricted rookies, how they might get paid. NASCAR and hockey guys have long understood this equation. With the case of Chris Borland, the calculus has changed. For Borland, three million dollars, the amount of his initial contract, just wasn’t enough to risk his future, even if it were probably enough to risk his present. Whether this is a generational shift towards the true meaning of life or simply the undue weight of increasingly conclusive medical science, Chris Borland decided there are things that are more important than money. For an organization that operates on the principles of pure capitalism, that’s an uncomfortable possibility.
Now, one linebacker does not a trend make. For every Chris Borland that retires, there’s a dozen that would gladly take his spot. That’s exactly what will happen, perhaps even at the upcoming NFL draft, where hundreds of league prospects pray for the very opportunity Borland just walked away from. So for the short term, unless whole teams start heading back to grad school, they’re probably fine. But if high school kids, and college athletes, and everyone else taking a similar risk with even less reward starts making the same decision, well, that’s when football goes the way of the Roman gladiators, a once glorious pastime now inconceivable to modern sensibilities.
Can the NFL stop all this? That’s the multi-billion dollar question. Regardless, it’s not something Chris Borland will have to worry about.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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