Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland turned more heads with his sudden retirement announcement than during his first year of a promising NFL career. In a March episode of SCI TV, Sports on Earth Senior Writer Will Leitch explores the curious case of Borland and the potential impact on the league. Leitch talks about the decision making process that Borland and other football players will likely use when choosing the preservation of health over a large paycheck, and what impact, if any, he thinks this case will have on the NFL and the sport of football in general.
Health Effects of Football
As the founder of Deadspin, Leitch enjoys finding interesting sports angles outside the mainstream. Chris Borland’s unique retirement, and the flurry of social commentary around it, provide a platform for discussing the larger health effects of football and how we think about the NFL.
“Nothing happens in a vacuum in the NFL,” Leitch said. “You can’t just be an independent actor, you have to stand for this larger organization.”
Leitch thinks that in many ways Borland’s decision cuts to the core of the league because of the type of player he was.
“You have a player that in a lot of ways represents what the league stands for, this gritty, fighter of a guy who’s tough and smart and everything the league should be promoting,” Leitch said. “He made what he saw was a rational decision. The ripples in that wake speak to the potential enormity of what Borland could stand for.”
Not Your Typical Rookie
At the same time Borland is not your typical rookie, coming from a family with more privilege and perhaps more perspective, than many NFL recruits. Either way, commentators and scouts are already watching how players weigh the long term risks of playing football.
“There’s a definite sense in the NFL that this is worrisome,” Leitch said. “This is something that’s becoming not just a ‘journalist problem,’ but a talent problem.”
But none of this seems an imminent threat to the league. Ratings are still sky high and the NFL is more profitable than ever. Leitch thinks Borland’s case and the concussion issue is a problem for the league in the long run; in the short run, business as usual.
Moral Habits vs. Viewing Habits
“There’s less pressure on (the NFL) to change than maybe there should be,” Leitch says, noting that for fans, “there is a disconnect between people’s moral habits and their viewing habits.”
In the end, Leitch thinks the discussion around the future of football needs to be more nuanced than simply great entertainment versus grave health danger.
“You have to be honest about the enjoyment of the game and what people get out of it rather than just scolding,” Leitch says. “That makes for a more honest conversation and a more complex one that doesn’t have easy answers.”