Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Leaving, Part Deux

And now another NFL player flees the building, and this time there are no alternative explanations for why.

Say hello to Chris Borland, outside linebacker for the 49ers, 5-11, 248 pounds of mean. Or, rather, say goodbye to him.

Borland, 24, has announced he's retiring, and not even the money -- a multi-year deal worth $3 million -- can talk him out of it. The paycheck no longer carries more weight than what earning it will mean for his future, or perhaps the lack of same.

Simply put: Borland doesn't want to wake up someday and find his melon has turned to squash.

"I've thought about what I could accomplish in football," he told ESPN's Outside the Lines. "But for me, personally, when you read about Mike Webster and Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, you read all these stories, and to be the type of player I want to be in football, I think I'd have to take on some risks that, as a person, I don't want to take on."

He's the fourth player younger than 30 to walk away from the game in the last week, and if that alone should give the NFL pause, Borland in particular is especially worrisome. He is, after all, the only one of the four to specifically say he's leaving because of the mounting evidence that playing professional football will either shorten your life or significantly diminish its quality.

You could read all that between the lines when seven-time Pro Bowler Patrick Willis, Titans quarterback Jake Locker and Steelers LB Jason Worilds hung it up last week, but you didn't have to bother doing that with Borland. He came right out and said it: The game has simply become too brutal.

"I just thought to myself, 'What am I doing? Is this how I'm going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I've learned and know about the dangers?'" said Borland, who says he started thinking about it in training camp last year, and did extensive research concussion-related CTE when the season was over.

And if this were a placekicker or a punter or even a quarterback, maybe you say (or maybe the NFL says), "Yeah, of course the game was too brutal for you." But Borland played the position that perhaps most rewards brutality. Linebackers earn their hard dollar a collision at a time, and the more devastating the better. And Borland was good at that, making 107 tackles last season for the Niners and earning NFL Defensive Player of the Week honors after making 13 tackles and intercepting two passes against the Giants.

When the bringers of mayhem start having doubts about it, you've got a problem. Especially when you've built your entire corporate entity by selling that mayhem, tapping into the bloodlust of your fan base with highlight videos of car-crash collisions and helicoptering wide receivers literally being knocked for a loop.

The NFL doesn't sell those Hardest Hits vids anymore, but the instinct that produced them -- the marketability of the game's sheer physical violence -- was surely behind the league's reluctance to acknowledge, for an unseemly length of time, that it had a concussion issue. Now that worm is turning on it viciously; if players younger than 30 quitting the game actually becomes a trend, it will  at least partly be because the players no longer trust the league to look after their well-being. And the NFL will have no one to blame but itself for that.

Denial carries a price. This is it.

For the NFL, it's a price that will continue to mount, because the most disturbing part of this, if you're one of the suits sitting around the gleaming conference table in the league offices, is that there there's only so much Roger Goodell or anyone else can do. Football is inherently violent. If you remove that violence, the game dies. They're up against physics here, and physics is implacable: A player weighing X who runs the 40 in Y delivers Z foot pounds of force.

In 2015, X, Y and Z have become unsustainable. Fifty years ago the game was played by relatively normal-sized human beings who didn't run all that fast. Now 250-pound linemen have become 350-pound linemen who run as fast as a lot of wide receivers once did. The damage they can inflict is exponentially more catastrophic -- and it has reached a tipping point.

For Chris Borland, that tipping point became clear over a matter of months last year. And so he's quitting.
"I just want to live a long and healthy life," he says.

The worst part of that for the NFL?

That's one desire it can't fulfill.

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