Chris Borland played one season in the NFL and retired, and it shook the league. The outstanding middle linebacker only earned about $575K for his year with the 49ers, filling in for the injured Patrick Willis—who also retired early just a week ago.
He was high in the Rookie of the Year voting even with limited time on the field. Still, he stepped away from a promising career and potentially lucrative contracts down the line at 24 years old.
Playing in the NFL was too dangerous, Borland said. The risk wasn’t worth the reward.
In response, the NFL put out a statement. It said the league respected Borland’s choice, but that they felt that football had never been safer. Essentially, it was a statement to reassure fans and players alike that the dangers weren’t as bad as public perception, even with a player of Borland’s caliber making such a ground-breaking decision.
If people thought Willis’ retirement at 30 was too early, Borland’s was shocking at 24. The league wanted to prop itself up to show people that this wasn’t some mass exodus of players or that the NFL—which earns more money every year—was on the brink of demise.
So, who should be trusted? Is football really safer than it’s ever been, or is Borland right that the risk is just too great?
It’s a little bit of both. First off, Borland is not wrong that there is a risk playing football, the impact of which has been seen in many cases with older players — rule changes in the NFL reflect it. When Tom Brady gets tapped in the head, fans get mad it’s a penalty, but there’s a reason blows to the head are outlawed.
Borland should also be applauded for his decision, if only because it shows he’s willing to do what he thinks is best for himself, no matter what any fan, player or team thinks. This retirement took guts.
While $575K is a lot of money, he can’t retire on it at 24, so this isn’t some rich player deciding he’s too lazy to play. He’s going to have to work much longer and harder in his life, and he’ll probably never get near the money he could have made with a huge NFL contract.
That’s just how much he believes he’s doing the right thing.
At the same time, though, the NFL is not wrong — the game is safer than it has been in the past. A lot of it has to do with rule changes. Defenders can’t hit other players in the head, even when it appears there is little they can do to avoid it. The NFL wants those hits out of the game and they’ve been ruled out.
What would have been an awesome hit for John Lynch in the 90s is now a flag and a free 15 yards for the offense. Fans complain and players complain, but as long as the players are also suing the NFL, the changes have to be made.
The NFL has also done a lot to adjust how they approach concussions. The concussion protocol has been altered — it’s much more extensive and players can be ordered out of the game even if they want to play. Helmet sensors are used in practice and training camps to collect more data about hits and concussions.
Steps are being taken. Players and coaches are being trained differently. Concussions are definitely being addressed and, as such, there were fewer in 2014 according to the league. That marks three consecutive years with fewer concussions. By that measure, football is getting safer every day.
But football is still and always will be a violent game. It’s the nature of the beast.