Borland’s retirement spotlights an issue thrust upon the NFL by a concussion controversy that erupted in 2013. After the publication of the superbly researched book “League of Denial,“ the NFL was forced to admit that its game was definitely hazardous to players’ health — particularly in terms of long-term brain injury. But players have known that football is a dangerous business for years, albeit without scientific data to confirm the suspicion. Borland is the first to systematically consider the evidence and opt out of the game. Research for our book, “Is There Life After Football? Surviving the NFL,” however, suggests that few players are likely to follow suit. Football has been under fire for years for being too dangerous, yet its popularity at the highest levels is at an all-time high. Even Borland’s well-considered red flag isn’t going to change the landscape.
In interview after interview reported in the book, current and former players insist they would “do it all again in a heartbeat,” even when confronted by the injuries they’ve endured and the risks they’ve faced. Players aren’t oblivious to the dangers; they just love the game more than they fear debilitating injury. When they weigh the risks and rewards of playing in the NFL, they aren’t simply considering whether the health perils are worth the extravagant paydays (which, incidentally, aren’t as extravagant as most fans and many players think, especially since NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed and are worth far less than those in other major sports). Rather, they’re considering their willingness to give up a way of life to possibly preserve their health years down the road.
That way of life is an all-consuming culture. NFL players have been immersed in the game and the “bubble” that surrounds elite athletes since they were kids. Perks, from lavish playing facilities and living quarters on campus to the extravagant trappings of life in the NFL, come with the game, and the players have earned them. But there’s more to it than material rewards. There’s the feeling of coming out of the tunnel onto the field to be greeted by 80,000 cheering fans and millions in the TV audience, a heady atmosphere.
Football is a tough man’s game, and players view themselves as tough guys. Former Raider star Jim Otto, perhaps the quintessential NFL “gladiator,” underwent 74 football-related surgeries and suffered countless concussions. Otto is proud of his tough-guy reputation and insists he wouldn’t change a thing about his NFL career. In the past few years, the league has instituted a number of rule changes to promote player safety: no hits to the head, no hits to the knee, no launching and targeting. But much of the resistance to these changes has come from the players themselves, who don’t want to compromise the violent game they love. Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said, “I understand that they want the sport to be safer, but eventually you’re going to start to take away from the essence of this game, and it’s not really going to be the football that we all love and have a passion for.”
And then there’s the camaraderie, which we found to be the thing former players missed most about the game. “You are with your teammates more than you are with your family,” noted former defensive tackle Mike Golic. The locker room is like sacred ground. Black and white players work together, not in some sort of racial utopia, but in a setting where common goals supersede racial differences. According to Hall of Fame receiver Chris Carter, “The NFL is the least racist environment I’ve ever been in.” Players are deeply committed to the game and to one another. The esteem of their peers matters. Walking away from the game for fear of injury means leaving the brotherhood.
If players see viable alternatives to football in their lives, walking away may be tempting. If, like Borland, they come from a comfortable socioeconomic backgrounds, have taken advantage of their educational opportunities, and can envision viable ways of supporting themselves in the future, some players may indeed get out with their health still intact. But if football has been their only dream and they’ve failed to cultivate alternate opportunities, if they’re the economic saviors of their extended families, walking away isn’t an option. It’s one thing for Borland, the middle-class son of a financial planner, to quit football in order to pursue an advanced degree and career in sports management. It’s something quite different for kids growing up poor on the mean streets of Miami or in the small towns of west Texas. Nearly 70 percent of NFL players are African American, and many come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds. While money isn’t the only reason they play, it’s a powerful incentive.
Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett began experiencing Alzheimer’s-like symptoms before his 60th birthday. He was subsequently diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy—brain disease—attributed to playing football. Despite his condition, Dorsett recently sized up the head injury situation for NBC News: “Injuries go along with playing that great game of football. … This is just one of the injuries that comes along with playing the game.” While players have more information at their disposal and more reason than ever to questions the safety of the NFL, we suspect that their faith in the “great game of football” will endure. Chris Borland is more likely an anomaly than a trendsetter.