Mind Over Sports

CHRIS BORLAND’S EARLY RETIREMENT FROM THE NFL

Posted on: December 24, 2015

When San Francisco linebacker Chris Borland retired from the NFL after just one year, it was because he was concerned about long-term brain damage as a result of concussions received while playing football. After his retirement, the following appeared in ESPN The Magazine:

One day in April, the NFL asked Chris Borland to take a random drug test. The timing of this request was, in a word, bizarre, since Borland, a San Francisco 49ers linebacker, had retired a month earlier after a remarkable rookie season. He said he feared getting brain damage if he continued to play.

Borland had been amazed at the reaction to his decision, the implications of which many saw as a direct threat to the NFL. And now here was an email demanding that he pee in a cup before a league proctor within 24 hours or fail the test. “I figured if I said no, people would think I was on drugs,” he said recently. That, he believed, “would ruin my life.” As he thought about how to respond, Borland began to wonder how random this drug test really was.
What did the NFL still want with him? Nobody could have held out much hope that he’d change his mind. On Friday, March 13, when Borland retired via email, he attached a suggested press release, then reaffirmed his intentions in conversations with 49ers officials. Instead of announcing Borland’s retirement, the team sent him a bill — an unsubtle reminder that he’d have to return most of his $617,436 signing bonus if he followed through. That Monday, Borland, knowing he was forgoing at least $2.35 million, not to mention a promising career, made the announcement himself to Outside the Lines. He has since elaborated on the decision to everyone from Face the Nation to Charlie Rose to undergraduates at Wisconsin, where he was an All-American.

Borland has consistently described his retirement as a pre-emptive strike to (hopefully) preserve his mental health. “If there were no possibility of brain damage, I’d still be playing,” he says. But buried deeper in his message are ideas perhaps even more threatening to the NFL and our embattled national sport. It’s not just that Borland won’t play football anymore. He’s reluctant to even watch it, he now says, so disturbed is he by its inherent violence, the extreme measures that are required to stay on the field at the highest levels and the physical destruction (he has witnessed to people he loves and admires — especially to their brains.

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