A lot of people think Chris Borland’s retirement from the NFL at age 24 out of fear for his brainbox is a message to the NFL, a sign that players are suddenly factoring cerebral damage as part of the equation of career-building.
A lot of people are wrong. The NFL isn’t ready to accept the message, and won’t be until the day when the law of labor supply and demand kicks it right in the nethers.
The National Football League has almost 2,000 Chris Borlands every year, and they care about them equally – namely, how much they cost. Borland’s choice, which is to be applauded for what it says about thoughtful adult-sized decision-making, will not change what the NFL seeks – the entirety of each family’s entertainment budget.
And if you think that is too cynical a view, let me remind you of Junior Seau’s suicide, and how he chose to express it.
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Seau was a Hall of Fame-level player who killed himself by shooting himself in the chest so that his brain could be preserved for testing – testing that revealed that he had CTE, the brain disease caused by among other things repetitive collisions that are the essence of the sport. It should have been a sobering and even crushing moment for the sport, and yet television ratings and revenue continue to rise to the point where the $25 billion revenue make that drives commissioner Roger Goodell’s future in the job.
So let’s just say it. If Junior Seau didn’t chase the public away, it is hard to imagine how Chris Borland can.
Except that what Borland’s retirement might do is tell future players confronted by his circumstance that walking away isn’t actually that ridiculous an option. And that is a development that, like the NFL’s other worry, will take years, maybe even decades to congeal.
In other words, the NFL’s biggest problem is not yet visible to the naked eye, and those who understand that can only nod at the tiny paper cut that Chris Borland inflicted today.
What the NFL is most afraid of, other than the new budget from President Obama which proposes an end to the long-standing practice of states and cities using tax-exempt bonds to finance professional sports arenas, is the notion that the next generation of children will be prevented from playing football by their parents, either because of safety concerns or the number of insurance companies who will no longer want to cover youth and high school football programs.
That specter arose after retired and deceased players spoke of their post-career difficulties with brain trauma either caused or exacerbated by the demands of the sport. Now add a player like Borland, who is part of the game’s future, and now you have another crack in the façade.
But the façade is tall and wide and mighty, and the NFL is skilled at minimizing the bad news while churning out more and more product. Borland’s decision works for him, but it is not yet a harbinger of the end of football. That will have to come in time, when young people either opt or are opted out of the industry before even starting. The Chris Borlands of the world will probably be few and far between, but he sent a message Monday – specifically, that there are lots of ways to say goodbye.
But there are millions of goodbyes before the big goodbye. Chris Borland’s was among the first, and if the only one who remembers it 60 years from now is him, good on his memory for winning.