The blogosphere is blowing up in the wake of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland’s announcement that, at age 24 and just one year into a promising career in the NFL, he is hanging up his cleats and retiring from football. “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” he told ESPN. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
Borland considered the accumulating research linking repeated concussions with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurodegenerative brain disease found in a disproportionately high percentage of former NFL players. “When you read about Mike Webster and Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling, you read all these stories, and 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.” Webster, Duerson, and Easterling were seasoned NFL veterans who suffered mightily after their careers ended with amnesia, dementia, depression, and acute pain. Webster lived a transient life in his last years, either out of his pickup or in train stations, before his death at age 50. Duerson and Easterling both committed suicide, as did Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau. All were diagnosed with CTE when their brains were analyzed after their deaths.
Most reactions to Borland’s retirement are quick to link the story with other recent early retirements: 30-year-old Patrick Willis, Borland’s fellow 49er and perennial all-pro who cited foot injuries; 26-year-old Tennessee Titan Jake Locker, former first-round draft pick and still in-demand quarterback who cited a lack of desire to keep playing; and 27-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds, leaving what was likely to be a sizable free-agent payday on the table “to pursue other interests.” It’s not clear that the early retirement trend is really a trend, or just four players deciding to call it quits for reasons that may or may not overlap. But linking these stories fits with the emerging narrative that raises questions about where football is heading.
The narrative can be summarized like this:
- The accumulating evidence shows that playing football is very risky.
- More and more parents aren’t letting their kids play football, and now NFL players are retiring early.
- Does football have a future?
- Of course football has a future, it’s a billion-dollar industry and we all love it.
- What is that future?
To me, the most interesting and thought provoking answer to the “what is that future” question came from super-agent Leigh Steinberg a year ago. In an interview with Mark Purdy, Steinberg (safely) predicted that football will never go away; indeed, it will remain at the height of popularity for many years to come. However, he suggested that the demographics of players will shift. Because of the health risks, more players will give up the game early. But of greater long-term impact, more and more parents—especially those from upper- and middle-class homes—will steer their children toward other, safer options. “Ultimately,” summarized Purdy, “the pool of football players will be less diverse and full of more desperation.
That won’t be healthy for anyone, on several levels. And it could seriously harm the game’s public appeal. Steinberg calls this ‘the existential threat to football.’” Think about boxing. Once upon a time boxing was among the most followed sports in the U.S. Now? Thanks to gambling, it still generates many millions of dollars, but try telling your friends that you hope to have your kids in boxing gloves as soon as they hit elementary school. Your family will not be invited to many play dates.
Improvements in equipment, increased awareness, and rule changes have made football safer. But football is football—switching to two-hand touch will eliminate what many fans find most exciting. As the health risks continue to move to the forefront, it will be fascinating to see whether Steinberg’s predictions ring true. Sports is in many ways a great equalizer—whatever your upbringing, education and income, if you share a rooting interest with someone very different from you, you’ve got a bridge that is easy to cross. Will shifting demographics in football eventually counter this by driving a wedge between classes?