Cory’s Corner: Early retirements send a strong message to the NFL

The NFL has to be on red-alert by now.

When Jake Locker decided to step away from the game, many were surprised that the eighth overall pick in 2011 left a decent amount of money on the table.

But now 49ers linebacker Chris Borland is calling it quits. This is earth-shattering news for someone that just got his NFL feet wet last year. Borland started eight games last season as a rookie when Patrick Willis was hurt. Willis, by the way, is also calling it a career.

“I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told “Outside the Lines.” “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

Borland is a 24-year-old linebacker. He’s been in countless collisions whether it’s been at Archbishop Alter High School in Dayton, the University of Wisconsin or as a third round pick of the 49ers.

And that’s why those last seven words will be digested like samurai swords for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. If enough players suddenly figure out that the NFL isn’t worth the risk, what game is he selling to TV partners, deep-pocketed sponsors and everyday fans?

Borland is the third player to retire in his twenties in the last week. Apparently, players have been getting the message about head injuries. They see and read the stories of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Mike Webster. They are starting to understand the risks and are making educated decisions about their future lives before their brain can be examined.

Doctors are joining players as well. “There is no reason, no medical justification, for any child younger than 18 to play football,” said Neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, MD. “Period.”

Which is why it’s a little scary that 70 percent of all football players in this country are under age 14. Football has the highest injury rate of any team sport and each child ages 9-12 who plays football, experiences an average of 240 head impacts during a season.

And take that into Borland’s case. He played football as a kid, in high school and at a high level at a Big Ten Conference school. The abuse to the brain continued to pile up, and became more pronounced. And it becomes even more profound at the college and pro levels where players are a lot stronger and faster than they were 10-15 years ago.

One of the biggest problems is at the youth level. Many coaches are either underqualified or aren’t qualified at all. Just take a peek at “Friday Night Tykes” sometime on the Esquire Network. Coaches from the Texas Youth Football Association aren’t concerned about cultivating a player by teaching him the proper techniques. They only care about winning — which is scary. Injuries are often met with skepticism and teasing from the coach.

And Texas is one of the white whales when it comes to college football recruiting. The Longhorns are obviously the kingpin, but many schools throughout the nation bend over backwards just to make inroads in a state stocked with so much talent. And if the price of winning a youth game is the cost of a child’s mental state, is it really worth it?

“I just thought to myself, ‘What am I doing?’” said Borland. “‘Is this how I’m going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I’ve learned and know about the dangers?’”

Without a sustainable youth organization, football is dead in the water. Instead of growing up and dreaming about being Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck or Antonio Brown, kids will soon think twice about football. That is, if the kids’ parents don’t say something first and forbid playing football altogether.

The other problem lies with the NFL for not having the foresight to recognize this crisis. Retired players have complained about mental acuity before but strangely the NFL never made the connection between head injuries and life-altering behavior. That has to do with players using their helmets as a weapon instead of protection or it’s because players are improperly fitted, which is why you see numerous helmets scattered throughout football fields each season.

The NFL has already agreed to shell out $765 million as part of a concussion lawsuit that has the strength of over 4,000 former players.

I applaud Borland and the others. It takes guts to walk away from your dream. Putting aside fame and fortune in the name of health and safety is admirable.

There are those that will diminish what Borland did by saying that over 300 people are willing and able to take his place, which is true. And the NFL can beat its chest by saying that concussions were down this year, which is also true. But the constant beating that a brain receives from Pop Warner up to high school, college and NFL ball is astounding and does add up.

What Borland did wasn’t the popular choice. Countless other guys choose risk instead of health. But how much longer will that continue to be the case? When will more guys start to trickle away from the game for the simple fact that a short 7-10 year career isn’t worth a life of forget and frailty?

This isn’t just happening in big-time college and pro football however. A Wisconsin high schooler has made the bold step to step away from the game because of future concussion concerns.

With better research widely available, I see more kids and parents thinking twice about football.



Cory Jennerjohn is from Wisconsin and has been in sports media for over 10 years. To contact Cory e-mail him at jeobs -at- or follow him on Twitter: Cory Jennerjohn


20 thoughts on “Cory’s Corner: Early retirements send a strong message to the NFL

  1. There are a lot of higher risk jobs than football out there and the pay scale is at 50-75,000 /year. Now if your getting paid 10 million/yr, and your going to whine about concussions, I don’t feel sorry for you. It’s simple, if your afraid of concussions etc. don’t play the game, you have a choice. Pretty sure you don’t sign a contract for 10 million/yr with a guarantee that you won’t get hurt. Suck it up cry babies.

    1. The thing that is bizarre to me is that people are all up in arms about football, but no one seems to be worried about the exploding popularity of MMA (or the Mayweather / Pacquiao thing) where the WHOLE POINT OF THE COMPETITION is to cause a concussion…

  2. Any career is a personal decision where it’s risk vs. reward. Football is no different. For some guys who grew up in the ghetto and never had anything, the risk is worth the reward of millions of dollars. For others, the risk of severe mental and physical problems isn’t worth it. There is more to life than football for them.

    It’s only now that the general public is more well-informed about the risks. Even so, more research is needed to diagnose Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) because the only way to definitively diagnose it, is when someone is dead.

    We see these guys playing, but the glory is short-lived. The article mentions “7-10 year career,” but the average NFL career is actually 3 years. That is the shortest of any major league sport.

    I’d support a decision either way. Grew up poor? Shoot, get your money and then get out. Want to retire early to preserve your long-term health? Go for it. There is so much more information available now, and players can talk with former players like Borland did to assess the risk.

    To each his own — but the risk is known.

  3. “The NFL has to be on red-alert by now.”

    Yes,like a scene in a movie.the button was pushed and the entrance way to the mountain began to close tight and all the Owners scurried to the embedded chamber to hold the ‘What the hell are we going to do” talks as the mighty NFL was surging into oblivion with unprecedented speed of employees that seemed to many like a bank run in the 1929 depression…..RED ALERT!!!…..RED ALERT!!! 🙂

  4. Cory – good job for writing about this issue. If the NFL as we have known it is going to survive over the long term the issue of player safety and long term health needs to be addressed. The league, i.e. the commissioner, and the owners do not care about the players at all, at least not yet. They believe the players are paid employees and they should go out and play. But in reality how many NFL players are well paid and for long. If the average NFL career is 3.3 seasons then most players don’t make it out of their rookie contracts and into their first big payday, like Bulaga, Cobb, Shields and Burnett recently did. Is 3 seasons in the NFL worth a lifetime of pain and suffering. I don’t think so. Player know the risks going in, yes, at least to an extent, but no one who is 22-23 years old thinks they will have a lifetime of chronic health problems. They believe they are invincible and that it won’t happen to them. Numerous steps need to taken to address this issue. First, no one should be allowed to play football until they are at least in High School and maybe not even until they are 18 as pointed out by the doctor in the hospital. Next, people who are thinking of a career in football need to be better informed about the danger of playing football. Coaches need to focus on technique not on winning and should be certified either by the NFL or an independent organization to become football coaches. Equipment, especially helmuts need to be designed to provide protection versus functioning as a weapon and yes, there need to be more rule changes around player safety, which will probably result in a significant change in how the game is played. These changes will either take place resulting in a different game from what we know or over time the best players will opt out either before they even start a football career or early in their careers ala Borland. If the latter happens the quality of the on field product will drop to even lower level of mediocrity then we have now eventually reaching the point where the games become unwatchable. We are not very far from that point now. The league and the owners need to commit some their $10+ billions of revenues into education and safety if the game is to survive. It needs to be done sooner rather than later. Given all the other crisis that the league is currently dealing with can they survive an on the field tragedy during a national prime time game? What is sponsors response. Can the league survive continued violent crimes committed by players whose behavior becomes modified due to consistent head injuries? Will the sponsors hang in for that. Real issues, they need to be discussed and addressed soon. Or will the league just continue to count their billions while their players suffer after they leave football? Again Cory, good job to bring this issue up, it is at the core of the future of the NFL and all of football. Thanks, Since ’61

    1. The very essence of participation in any sport/game is about winning and what anyone person is willing to do, not only to acquire the will but a also decide what sacrifice(s) is placed on the table to garner the victory.If winning isn’t at the fore front,which is made alluring by the accolades of fame and fortune,there is no point in the participation of such.

      There are few sports,if they can be considered such,that can achieve the levels of performance and duration that can ascertained by starting at the tender age of 18.Do we not hear often about the years of training and learning the aspects of such sports is needed and even then how difficult to succeed.This would have most having reached retirement age from said sport before actually gaining credible time to amass fame and fortune much less a single feat.

      We want the World to be a safe place for all is an ideology best suited in regard to war and other areas of inane doings but in contact sports,participants aren’t fighting and getting maimed for the sake or behest of others stupidity,though some make that the ploy of the Owners,but rather for their own reasons and the decision is theirs and theirs alone to partake or not as with Borland.

      Take away all savagery from the human race,how ever be it done,and we will have no human race at all.

      Let the games begin and continue and may those we partake reap the rewards for the victories and cry not for their failings or life’s future ailments from these willing endeavors.

      1. Taryn – everything that you say is correct. I have been a sports fan and participant long enough to know and beware of the sacrifices required to be successful. I am also aware that starting to train for a professional sport at 18 makes it very difficult to succeed. However, all of the skills required to play football can be practiced and learned without all of the contact prior to High School and even prior to 18. Also, part of being humans is about caring for our fellow human beings and not forgetting them and leaving them without support after they have entertained us for several years and we have moved on to other players and other venues. The fact that the league with all the money they make has forgotten the players who made this game or who created the opportunities that today’s players, owners and commissioner have is shameful. Johnny Unitas who virtually created the modern QB position and the NFL single handedly wasn’t even able to use his hand to sign autographs and died extremely bitter towards the NFL because they basically ignored and forgot about him. That story is repeated at least hundreds of times for those former players from the 50s, 60s and 70s. I believe that we should remain human enough to find a way to support players who need healthcare for their future ailments after they retire and that we can find a way to make the game safer and still retain the on field product. So yes let the games continue, enjoy the victories but be human enough to put some money aside for the future of the players. Savagery may be a part of the human condition but we don’t need to behave like savages so that a small group of already greedy owners can keep even more money without protecting the players and forgetting about their futures. Thanks, Since ’61

        1. “… we don’t need to behave like savages so that a small group of already greedy owners can keep even more money without protecting the players and forgetting about their futures.”

          I understand where you’re coming from but this has a better chance of becoming about, if every profession were to be under the same scrutiny and compelled to do so and not just the NFL or alike because,of it low number of Owners…i;e the US Gov, and the very people of the land,in regards to the military veterans…start here by guaranteeing them the care who risk all for no millions or fame and then possibly those who do so only for the millions and fame…..Sympathy can be easily steered astray. 🙂

          1. No question you are correct about the need for similar scrutiny in every profession. I was focused on the NFL because it is the subject of the blog but it can applied throughout society. As for our veterans, this is a hot button issue for me. I do as much as I can to support our vets. From donating tickets to sports and other events to helping veteran organizations with fund raising and pro bono consulting work. This is another huge area where so many people including the government are focused on the wrong things as proven by the recent shameful scandal at the VA. Bureaucracy run amok because no one was paying attention. Thanks Since ’61

    1. BR, I am relatively new here within the past year but what exactly is it about Cory that you don’t like? He doesn’t seem any different than any of the other writers. Just curious.

        1. Sorry, I just saw your post, I can never remember what I commented on until I see a DISQUS bar with a number in it. Doesn’t seem like 9 days ago! (On a side note, I just noticed that Cory himself gave my original comment an upvote. Extremely cool)

      1. All the writers are good, even Cory, but the guy’s conclusions and opinions are consistently wrong (IMO). Jason Perone, Jersey Al, and Adam Czech (my favorite) blow the guy away. He’s the weak link on a great team.

  5. So no bull riding, saddle bronc, steer wresting, bareback, Indian relay races, automobile racing, motocross,boxing, rugby, sky diving and on and on and on
    Let’s all stick to ping pong and croquet.
    This football is too dangerous meme will wear itself out. I can see Massachusetts and similar states doing something politically nutty but Texas won’t.
    I live in Montana where everyone kayaks, mountain bikes, does alpine skiing and so forth. We have deaths every year especially drowning and the hospital orthopedic doctors are kept very, very busy.
    I know women here who won’t let their little Johnny play football, but Johnny can go 40 mph downhill on his mountain bike or 60 mph downhill on his skis. The injuries are just as bad as football and often much worse.

    1. The politics are one thing, but as long as football remains popular the laws won’t be changed in most states. Not sure how an NFL team would survive an OSHA inspection, though. But the legal principles of tort law that might destroy football are arguably already in place.

  6. I think the viewpoints of Big T, Taryn, Montana83 and Since ’61 are all valid. Lawsuits and parents prohibiting football participation are the 2 most likely problems for the NCAA and NFL. Personally, I suspect lawsuits against the NCAA and high schools might be the most immediate issue. I don’t think the greedy owners stuff has much truth to it – it sounds more reflective of that poster’s ideology. GB has no greedy owners. Most of the other owners are not owners because they want to maximize profits; they don’t drink the blood of the players while they laugh uproariously at them. The team is their toy, and ticket to fame. But there probably are some sport franchise owners who are in it for the money rather than for love of the game, and more that would oppose changes that reduce the value of their franchise.

    Football can be made safer, but it cannot be made even reasonably safe without dramatically transforming the essential nature of the sport. I am not sure whether football sans hitting and tackling would be popular. Humans have always had a fascination with violence. My suspicion is that Football has enough violence to satisfy that appetite w/o revolting the sensibilities of most people, esp. if the injuries and consequences are kept out of sight.

    BTW, the narrator’s voice on the Vox video really grates on my nerves, even as I nod in agreement with much of what he is saying. The narrator sounds like the antithesis of Montana83.

  7. It’s all the media just blowing smoke if you ask me. Journalist’s and Union’s are some of the greediest most selfish and dishonest groups out there. They do everything purely to arouse controversy and mass hysteria. Anything that keeps the bad news going keeps them in the spotlight. And now players are leaving a high paying wonderful job because more and more are becoming paranoid from it. It’s bull**** if you ask me.

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