How the retirement of former San Francisco 49er Chris Borland and his research on concussions and mental health could change the NFL forever
Jared Sperli stashed this in football
Borland has consistently described his retirement as a pre-emptive strike to (hopefully) preserve his mental health.
"If there were no possibility of brain damage, I'd still be playing," he says. But buried deeper in his message are ideas perhaps even more threatening to the NFL and our embattled national sport. It's not just that Borland won't play football anymore. He's reluctant to even watch it, he now says, so disturbed is he by its inherent violence, the extreme measures that are required to stay on the field at the highest levels and the physical destruction he has witnessed to people he loves and admires -- especially to their brains.
Borland has complicated, even tortured, feelings about football that grow deeper the more removed he is from the game. He still sees it as an exhilarating sport that cultivates discipline and teamwork and brings communities and families together. "I don't dislike football," he insists. "I love football." At the same time, he has come to view it as a dehumanizing spectacle that debases both the people who play it and the people who watch it.
TOWARD THE END of his rookie season, Borland read League of Denial, our 2013 book chronicling the NFL's efforts to bury the concussion problem. After his last game, he contacted us through former St. Louis Cardinals linebacker David Meggyesy, who also walked away from the NFL, in 1969. Meggyesy wrote a best-selling memoir, Out of Their League, in which he described football as "one of the most dehumanizing experiences a person can face." Borland, a history major at Wisconsin, had met Meggyesy during his senior year, after hearing him give a guest lecture titled "Sports, Labor and Social Justice in the 21st Century."
It's tempting to draw parallels between Borland and Meggyesy, both of whom reject the NFL's easy narrative of cartoon violence and heroic sacrifice. Late in his pro career, Meggyesy was benched for his political activism. At Wisconsin, in 2011, Borland was punished with extra conditioning for skipping class to protest Republican Gov. (and current presidential candidate) Scott Walker, who was trying to limit collective bargaining for public employees. Borland marched with three cousins, one a teacher, and carried a sign that read: recall walker.
But there are significant differences between the two men. Meggyesy linked his retirement to the politics of the anti-war and civil rights movements. Borland, a more reluctant activist, is concerned primarily with public health. "I'm not really interested in fighting anything," he says. "But there are former players who are struggling. And certainly there are kids that are gonna play in the future. So if my story can help them in any way, I'd like to find a way to do that."
Borland reached out to us back in February because, as he contemplated retirement, he hoped to speak with researchers who appeared in League of Denial. One was Robert Stern, a neurology professor at Boston University, the leading institution for the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Over the past decade, the disease has been found in the brains of 87 out of the 91 dead NFL players who were examined. In late February, a BU-hosted "consensus conference" concluded that CTE is a distinct neurodegenerative disease found only in patients who experienced brain trauma. The NFL rejected its link to football for years.
"I'm concerned to the point of contemplating retirement, despite only playing one year in the pros," Borland wrote Stern in an email. They arranged to speak by phone on March 13. According to Borland, Stern told him that he could already have brain damage "that might manifest later"; damage that could worsen as a result of "a thousand or 1,500 hits every fall for 10 years." Stern says he also cautioned Borland that the science was still limited. "He said if there was an increased risk of him not being able to play with his kids, he didn't want to take that risk," Stern recalls.
Borland says his conversation with Stern sealed his decision. He retired later that day.
Borland told Stern that he hoped to use his experience "to help science." His participation in concussion research has become a big part of his journey to find a meaningful role for himself after football. He is a highly coveted research subject because he is neither old nor dead and because he was recently exposed to NFL-grade head trauma.
Borland estimates he's had about 30 concussions throughout his football career of five years at Wisconsin and one year in the NFL.
Borland says distancing himself from the sport has helped him see it more clearly. And he is more disturbed by what he sees.
Borland believes the NFL cannot be made safer because structurally it embraces violence.
SHORTLY AFTER HE was drafted by the 49ers in the third round last year, Borland attended the annual rookie orientation put on by the NFL. The league tries to prepare young players for what to expect on and off the field, and it brought in two prominent retired players to give the rookies advice.
"Get yourself a fall guy," Borland says one of the former players advised. The former player, whom Borland declined to name, told the rookies that if they ran into legal trouble, their designated fall guy would be there to take the blame and, if necessary, go to jail. "'We'll bail him out,'" Borland says the former player assured them.
Borland was appalled. "I was just sitting there thinking, 'Should I walk out? What am I supposed to do?' " he recalls. He says he didn't leave the room because he didn't want to cause a scene, but the incident stayed with him.
Borland's only connection to the NFL now is through his friends and his bank account. His financial situation isn't desperate, but it's not what many people think it is. The 49ers paid him $420,000 in salary last year (the NFL minimum) plus his $617,436 signing bonus. Minus taxes and contributions to his charitable trust, he took home about $550,000 -- but still has that bill for more than $463,000 of his signing bonus. Borland, who led the 49ers in tackles last year, used a performance bonus to pay the first installment and still owes more than $300,000, due over the next two years. (It helps that Borland is the Donald Trump of frugality. Despite grossing well over $1 million last year, he rented a room in a Silicon Valley condo for $800 a month. One night he was FaceTiming with his mother, who got a glimpse of the bare walls, the reading lamp on the floor. "Chris, are you in the hospital?" she asked.)
In his own quiet way, Borland is presenting a counter-narrative to the one presented every week during football season -- the narrative created by five TV networks, including ESPN, and myriad websites, publications and talk shows ... the narrative that only $10 billion in revenue can buy. Whether you agree with him or not, the effect is like stepping into a different reality.
Shortly after he retired, Borland was invited to attend the National Summit on Sports Concussion in Los Angeles. Once he accepted, the organizers used his name ("Chris Borland, former NFL player") to promote the event. Borland told them to stop. He didn't want to be seen as endorsing the idea that football can be made safe.
We need to start a grassroots campaign to let him keep the signing bonus. He definitely earned it last year.
Chris Borland has courageously inserted himself into a public discussion fraught with disagreements, incomplete information, misinformation and conflicts of interest. He provides an articulate and balanced model for how individual athletes and parents of young athletes must reach their own conclusions about their careers while dealing with an ongoing scientific and media debate about what the medical facts are.
When asked for advice as an investigator of traumatic brain injury (TBI) for almost 35 years, I tell individuals that no DEFINITIVE medical opinion can be currently rendered on the long term effects of repeated concussions or even sub-concussive impacts. I encourage them to inform themselves and make their own decisions, as Mr. Borland did. Others will certainly make different decisions. Unfortunately the diagnosis and treatment of TBI lags decades behind cancer and cardiovascular diseases. For example, the brain is the only organ in the body for which there is no medically accepted blood test--an observation indicating that we won't have these answers quickly.