The decision former San Francisco linebacker Chris Borland made was a brave one, and one that sends a strong message.
The question for the rest of us is: what kind of message will we hear?
Borland decided to retire from professional football following his rookie season at the age of 24, citing concerns about his long-term health and the potential effects of head trauma. He is only the latest in a list of players under the age of 30 who have retired in the last week.
It’s easy to see a trend here, one of young players walking away from millions and quitting football.
Instead, it’s more healthy and instructive to see these decisions as choosing life after football. Borland, along with Jason Worilds, Jake Locker, and Patrick Willis, have weighed their future with care and respect. That’s an important statement in a society that too often believes football is an identity rather than a short-term job.
We know a lot more about Borland now than we otherwise would. On Monday, he was a 49ers player. On Tuesday, there is a search to learn about his background, his family, his career, his interests. He has developed a broader personality in the public eye because of this decision. He has continued an important discussion about player safety. His future is now of interest to all of us, while another free agent who goes unsigned during this offseason and begins a post-football life is off the radar and anonymous.
So many players choose their sport until it no longer chooses them. Then they vanish from our collective consciousness. Borland and others, like Sidney Rice, who plans to donate his brain to science, will be present in discussions for a while now. They won’t simply be ex-jocks. They will be voices we will need to hear for years.
Despite Borland’s age, his decision was informed by what happened to former players such as Mike Webster, who was active before Borland was born. The deaths of Webster and Dave Duerson and Junior Seau is terribly, irretrievably sad, but Borland is studying their lives and careers and he’s heeding what he’s learned.
That’s proof that today’s generation of football players is more informed and smarter than ever. The players do not necessarily see themselves as beholden or indebted to the game. That’s a very good thing for society and for football itself — even though many will consider Borland’s choice as a sign that football is doomed.
Borland is now in what the NFL calls a “transition.” That’s a helpful label because it suggests a move from something important to something else important. The truth is that football itself is a transition. It’s a short period of time for almost every professional who plays. It’s a gateway to the rest of a player’s life, and not the culmination of his life. It’s not “What are you going to do after football?” It’s “What are you going to do next?”
Worilds left the Pittsburgh Steelers to pursue other interests. Locker said his desire to play the sport had waned. Willis worried about the long-term effects of his foot injuries. Borland’s choice was based on the fear of the effects of concussions, and there is a temptation to loop all of these decisions together and call it a pattern of leaving. It’s just as much a pattern of choosing something else — even if the athlete doesn’t know that “something else” yet.
What’s important for the rest of us is to study Borland’s post-football life. Do he and Rice and the others have the resources and support that all retirees need? The NFL has resources for those who no longer play, but is it enough? Is it working? What else do the league and the NFLPA need to do? Are more mental health resources needed? Is there enough in the way of job training and continuing education? Borland has a long life ahead of him, and so his story is one that will hopefully help his peers and those who look at his choice as an option for their own lives.
Up until Monday, most of us looked at Chris Borland and saw only a football helmet. Now that he’s tossed the helmet aside, we are able to see so much more.