When 49ers Linebacker Chris Borland retired yesterday after one successful season in the NFL, it left a lot of people scratching their heads. Why would a young player who could make as much as $540,000 this season, with possible millions in store for his future, walk away from a game that would have set him up for life? The answer, in light of recent NFL history, wasn’t shocking – Borland, having already suffered two concussions in college, was wary of inflicting any further damage on his brain.
Football linebacker is one of the most brutal positions in sports. Its patron saint is Junior Seau, a crushing hitter who ended his life at the age of 43 by shooting himself in the chest in order to preserve his brain so scientists could research the concussions that ruined his life. Chris Borland, who announced that he would retire at age 24, isn’t stupid: He knows that every season he spends in the league is another down-payment on future mental and physical disabilities (disabilities the NFL has dragged its feet to compensate for). At some point, the riches offered by football would no longer outweigh the amount of money that Borland would be able to earn living the healthy life of a college graduate (unburdened by the costs of intensive medical treatment in middle-age).
Borland succinctly stated his thinking in an interview with ESPN’s Outside The Lines:
"I feel largely the same, as sharp as I've ever been. For me, it's wanting to be proactive. I'm concerned that if you wait 'til you have symptoms, it's too late. ... There are a lot of unknowns. I can't claim that X will happen. I just want to live a long, healthy life, and I don't want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise."
This all makes a perfect amount of sense. Borland earned a bachelor’s degree in history while at the University of Wisconsin and said he plans to get a master’s degree in sports management. A beloved star at Wisconsin, Borland will see every possible door open to him as he explores his future. While he won’t be raking in millions like he would in the NFL (which could destroy a life in a single play), Borland will mostly likely never be wanting for a healthy paycheck. Instead of being a vegetable at the age of forty, Borland will be entering the prime of his career, perhaps even nearing the million mark again as a coach or AD. Borland didn’t make an emotional decision -- he just did the math.
What this means for the NFL is significant. Players with college degrees and actual prospects outside of the sport will begin to look a little less starry-eyed when it comes to the roar of the crowd and the zeroes on their paycheck. It seems likely that we’ll see Borland’s story keep on repeating itself – players who lived out their dream of playing a season in the NFL and then cutting their physical losses and getting on with their actual lives. Linebacker, because it’s the most certain way to debilitate oneself, will almost certainly see a loss of talent depth, but other positions will most likely see players begin to walk away in droves.
Just last month, Tony Dorsett, the famed Cowboys running back who is suffering from memory loss, dementia, and depression, said on a radio interview that when it came to his health, he never knew that “the end was going to be like this. “ Borland is proving that it doesn't have to.
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