The retirement of Niners’ linebacker, Chris Borland, at the ripe old age of 24 created plenty of fodder for sports talk radio. Borland was a bright light on defense for the Niners last year and to say that the Niners have undergone a personnel purge in this offseason would be a massive understatement – sort of like saying Lance Armstrong is not trustworthy. Borland said that he was retiring because he does not think that an NFL career is worth the risk of serious brain injury/impairment down the road. In making his decision, he said he had spoken with “researchers” – I use quotation marks there because he did not cite the individuals so their bona fides cannot be evaluated – and reached his decision. He said he plans to go back to school – Wisconsin is where he played college football – and hopes at some point in the future to launch a career in sports management.
I am in no position to pass judgment on Chris Borland’s decision here nor do I think that it makes sense for anyone else to do so because this has to be a deeply personal issue for him. However, his thought process(es) here might have implications for the NFL down the road. Obviously, professional football – and football at every level – is a dangerous undertaking. Vince Lombardi once quipped that dancing is a contact sport while football is a collision sport. He was correct. Players in the NFL make “big bucks” and for those “big bucks” they put their bodies and their brains at risk. Either consciously or unconsciously, all players go through an individual calculus to determine if that risk is worth that reward. Some call it “love of the game”; I believe it is closer to “acceptable assumption of risk”.
Does the early retirement of Chris Borland portend the downfall of the NFL as we know it? Not in my lifetime… Take a look at the last year or so in the NFL and try to imagine what else could have happened to the league to make it less popular or less attractive. Yes, I guess there could have been a player who took a hit and died on the field with the cameras focused on him, but other than that… Then take a look at the TV ratings especially for the playoffs. The NFL in the short term is virtually immune to bad news or bad publicity or just about anything bad. Nevertheless, the really long term future for NFL football as we see it today is not a good one.
Some parents are going to steer their kids to play other sports; some parents will actively and aggressively keep their kids out of football. I have a personal way to relate to this situation:
My #1 son wanted to play football from the time he was about 6 years old. I refused – and enforced my refusal – to allow him to play “ankle-biter football’ or anything of that ilk until he got to high school. He wound up playing 4 years of high school football. During the time I had him “sidelined”, he did not view me as an enlightened parent or a concerned adult; I was simply thwarting him from doing what he wanted to do.
#1 son is now 41 years old and he has a 7-year old son. My grandson will “never play football” according to my son because it is not worth the risk.
Decisions of this type will diminish the talent pool for football – or the labor pool for the NFL if you prefer. However, that will be a gradual trend and it will be a long time until there will be a major effect on the league. Perhaps the model to consider here is the sport of boxing.
In the 1950s and 60s, newspaper reporters considered the “boxing beat” to be a plum assignment. Many of the memorable newspapermen of the first half of the 20th century did a lot of writing about boxing such as Jimmy Breslin, AJ Liebling, Bert Sugar, Red Smith and Jim Murray. Today, boxing is a moribund sport. Part of its demise has to do with the recognition that many boxers do not enjoy their golden years very much because of the constant pounding they took to their heads during their boxing careers. Today we call the condition later in life by clinical terms such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy; 50 years ago, folks said that retired fighters were “punch drunk”. To paraphrase the old Dragnet TV show:
The name has been changed – but it still does not protect the victim.
I can imagine a time way into the future when football will exist in one of two states:
1. It will be a moribund sport played only by people who have no other real skills in life with which to try to earn a living – much as is the case with much of of boxing today.
2. The NFL will have come up with more and more rules that are purely safety related and the game played then will bear little if any resemblance to what we see today.
Some folks on sports talk radio seem to see that same future but see it coming upon us very quickly. That is not my vision for the short term but I do believe that Chris Borland’s decision yesterday should give us a reason to step back and think about the long-term future of American football.
And speaking of boxing – obliquely – NBC has decided to televise boxing in prime time on the main network and on NBCSN. Norman Chad’s syndicated column, Couch Slouch, focused on the first prime time telecast recently. Let’s just say he was less than overwhelmed:
“[Adrien] Broner – [John] Molina was hyped as all action, all the time. As it were, I don’t believe either fighter landed a punch in the first round; the crowd had the look of folks waiting for keno results to post.
“Heck, I’ve seen several three-minute eggs that were more exciting than these three-minute rounds.”
“Anyway, I can’t tell you how tempted I was during 2 ½ hours of “Premier Boxing Champions” to flip over to “Pit Bulls and Parolees” on Animal Planet, but I had a column to write, so I stuck with the pugilists over the pugs.
“Still, if I were an NBC programmer, I’d show bingo in prime time before I’d show boxing.”
Finally, here is an observation from Brad Rock of the Deseret News:
“Last Sunday was the 35th anniversary of the famous “Miracle on Ice.”
For confused Millennials, no, it had nothing to do with freezing Ted Williams for science.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………