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- yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter: Cory Jennerjohn