A paycheck from the NFL may no longer be worth the consequences. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland has become the latest high-profile player to shed light on the health risks that come with playing football.
Borland recently announced his decision to retire from the league, citing concerns about concussions and permanent head trauma. The linebacker reportedly consulted concussion researchers, family, friends and teammates before reaching the difficult decision.
“I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland said. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
Leaving the NFL isn’t necessarily the smartest financial decision. But given the typically short duration of NFL careers and the trauma that accompanies them, it’s also not a terrible one. According to ESPN, Borland was expected to make $540,000 this year as a starter. It would have only been his second year in the league.
Business Insider lists the average NFL salary as $1.9 million per year, lower than NBA, MLB and NHL players, in that order. The site also reports that 70 percent of NFL players are between the ages of 22 and 27, earning less than the NFL average overall. Most players don’t last long in the league once they hit age 28.
By leaving early, Borland is making a statement about the way the NFL treats its players. He’s also making a statement about football culture in general. He claims the idea of retiring early started taking form during his first training camp, when he felt like he might have sustained a concussion but played through it because he wanted a spot on the team.
“I just thought to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ 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?” Borland said. In the NFL, it’s bold to fight through an injury and keep playing. In real life, deciding that risking your health isn’t worth it might be an even bolder move.
Despite increased knowledge of and concerns for the injuries caused by football, little has been done to make things different. The NFL has implemented rule changes, aiming to reduce helmet-to-helmet collisions and forcing players suspected of sustaining concussions to undergo certain medical checks. Still, the game is dangerous. Watch any game on any Sunday during the season and it’s almost guaranteed you’ll witness some type of injury take place. Injuries have almost become a part of the game.
These issues continue to be ignored, even if they're brought to the public's attention every few years. Another former football player named Chris — Christopher Nowinski — was one of the first to expose the inherent dangers of playing in the NFL.
Nowinski founded the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to solving the concussion crisis in sports. Nowinski’s experiences playing football at Harvard and wrestling for the WWE led him to publish the book "Head Games," which initially sparked the debate that Borland has reignited.
Borland’s story has reintroduced the concussion debate to the public. His retirement comes when the NFL is already on thin ice — coming off a year that was riddled with scandal and controversy. Despite its flaws, the NFL remains extremely popular.
As Grantland’s Andrew Sharp points out, no one is going to be talking about Borland once the season rolls around. Money keeps being poured into football, repercussions be damned. As long as people like Nowinski and Borland continue to stand up for their own health and safety, the game will slowly move towards a better future.
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