BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 03/18/2015

Thiel: Borland opens a new frontier in NFL

Shocking retirement after one year by Chris Borland has some forecasting NFL doom. Here’s a better idea: Make owners pay current/former players fairly for risking their lives.

At 27, Sidney Rice said he’d had too many concussions to continue playing pro football. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

My first column for Sportspress Northwest was about Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, chief of neurosurgery at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. He had just been appointed co-chair of the NFL’s new head and neck trauma committee, a much-belated move by Commissioner Roger Goodell to put independent, unpaid physicians in charge of shaping NFL player health policy, instead of the hand puppets employed previously.

Seventy years late, but gotta start somewhere.

Ellenbogen told me that the issue of sports-related concussions hit home for him at home.

When his then-15-year-old son, Zach, was concussed in a high school football game, Ellenbogen was confronted by his wife, Sandy, a nurse.

““She told me,”” he said, ““‘’if you don’’t get a handle on this, you’’re not going to get any mothers to let their kids play. This game is about done, unless you can convince the mothers of America that you can make it safer.’’”

The quote came to mind Monday when news broke that San Francisco 49ers rookie LB Chris Borland cited his apprehension over the threat posed by repeated head-knockings from football to his health long-term. He retired.

Besides crickets, all that could be heard was the thud of millions of jaws landing upon the cultural floor.

Borland, 24, said he read, he researched and he talked to people well versed in traumatic brain injury. He concluded that the estimated $4 million he would have earned through his four-year rookie contract — likely more, given the quality of his first year’s performance — was not worth it.

“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 knew about the dangers?’”

If you hadn’t heard of Borland before Monday, here’s what Pro Football Focus said of his skill level in his rookie season:

He played just 487 snaps, but played them well enough to earn a +20.8 PFF grade, the fourth-best mark among inside linebackers. From Week 6 onward, Borland notched 54 defensive stops, the best in the NFL over the remainder of the season despite missing the final two games with injury. He notched 82 solo tackles and 10 assists (using PFF’s retrospective, more accurate, count) in nine games. That’s an average of being in on more than 10 tackles per game.

Borland’s decision represents a watershed moment in the history of football — a good player at the beginning of a good career abandoning millions because of the potential for long-term brain damage. As his stats attested, this man is no wuss.

He didn’t reference his mother’s opinion, or his father’s opinion, regarding their influence on his decision. He said he kept them informed as he spent much of his free time learning about CTE, the condition that doctors say leads to diminished brain function and has been diagnosed in autopsies on more than 70 retired football players.

But his decision reflected Sandy Ellenbogen’s five-year-old forecast of trouble from the mothers of football-lusting sons. As we saw Monday, one of those young men absorbed the message.

Despite her husband’s best efforts — the committee’s conclusions in midseason 2010 caused unprecedented changes in the rules regarding contact with the head, followed by much player complaint — the NFL has reduced the number of reported concussions, but has come nowhere close to a solution.

It’s a collision sport. There’s not much more that can be done without fundamentally changing America’s most popular spectator endeavor into a non-collision sport.

Borland was not the first active player to clear his throat on the topic. To much less attention, Seahawks WR Sidney Rice said his decision to retire before the 2014 season was to avoid more concussions than the game already had given him.

Rice did an interview with CBS News and discussed his rationale:

“You have these guys that have been going to the same house for 25 years,” said Rice, speaking about stories from NFL legends Tony Dorsett and Herschel Walker. “And all of the sudden they get to a certain point on their way home, and they have to call their wives to get the directions home. So that is something that really hit home for me after having experienced so many concussions.”

Rice’s decision didn’t get as much attention because, due to other injuries, there was a legitimate question whether he would have made the Seahawks roster. In 2013, he played in only eight games and had 15 catches, but earned a ring as part of the Super Bowl champions.

Since Borland’s decision came at the front end of his career, it cannot be overlooked, ignored or unseen, as was Rice. But the fact that two intelligent, well-regarded players came to the same conclusion puts the matters now squarely in the front of every active NFL player’s mind.

They can say it isn’t there, but they are dissembling because the topic is in the front of minds of everyone who loves them — parents, wives, siblings, girlfriends, older children.

The players’ rationalization is obvious — the money is unlike any they will ever see the rest of their lives. I find that hard to dismiss, particularly for any player who came from less than a middle-income family.

And I also believe it to be nonsense that young men should know better than to have such reckless disregard for their own welfare. If it were not for the bravado and daring of young American men, we might be speaking another language, or having a third-world economy.

No, I’m not analogizing war to football (one of my goals in life is to one day have the resources to punch in the face every NFL executive, player, coach and media twit who uses “war room” instead of draft room), because I grasp the difference. But that is not to dismiss football as irrelevant, because it is not. What it is, is extremely popular, high-risk entertainment that has no net, nor immediately visible negative consequences to the brain, to mitigate the risk.

Some players who are fortunate enough to see the far horizon should be free to opt out with support, instead of the derision that has come Borland’s way from the mouth-breathing segment of the fan base. Those players who choose to continue to play should receive significantly more financial, medical and psychological support for their post-career lives than the NFL and the weak players union now provide.

Among all the tempests and controversies that have stirred the NFL in recent years, the most shameful episode continues to be the $765 million settlement the owners threw at the retired players in 2013 to end their lawsuit against the league, so the league did not have to answer the questions about what it knew about concussions, and when it was known.

Paying a pittance, relative to revenues, to thousands of risk-takers to buy their silence was one of the most cynically callous acts in the history of American sports. But it worked — the welfare of retired players is on the football media’s radar only when there’s another suicide.

I believe Borland or Rice do not want football to end. Neither do I. What does need to end is the NFL-directed camouflage that marginalizes clear understanding of the risks to performers and diminishes any urgency to help significantly the retired players.

It’s still a free country. We are free to take risks to smoke cigarettes and play football. Good for us, and good for tobacco companies that are free to make millions of dollars for 50 years despite federal research that made indisputably clear the companies were peddling cancer.

But at least there was some price to pay for selling death by the pack.

In 1998, tobacco companies settled litigation with the states by agreeing to pay $206 billion over 25 years to help recover Medicare and Medicaid health care costs from consequences to smokers.

That’s a good standard. Since making money is what the NFL does best, it’s your turn to match, big fellas.


  • dinglenuts

    Art – Thanks for this. It’s the most eloquent piece I’ve read about Borland’s decision. Down here in 9’er land, my only opportunity to gauge the response has been through my occasional forays into sports talk radio. Fan reaction has been somewhat less meat-headed than I expected – but then again, radio stations get to choose who sees airtime. (Amusingly, a number of listeners blame Jed York. I think he’s also being held responsible for the drought.)

    In the short term, this has very little effect on the NFL money-printing operation. In will take a number of years, though (decades?), for the decisions of numerous other Borlands (and parents who forbid their sons to play) to trickle down to reduce the talent pool.

    • Art Thiel

      Thanks for your good words.

      As to the arc of the story . . . most floods begin as a trickle.

      • dinglenuts

        Very true. I guess we’ll see how long it takes for the trickles to accumulate into a stream, and then a river. I’m am very interested in seeing how the NFL PR machine approaches this.

        • Art Thiel

          They’ve already had a PR statement saying that football is safer than it’s ever been. Which is true, but that’s like telling a soldier in a bed at Walter Reed that IEDs are down 20 percent year over year.

          • dinglenuts

            Art, if you ever write a book made up entirely of analogies you’ve used over the years, I’ll buy it.

          • Art Thiel

            Get a thousand of your closest friends to do same, and I’m on it.

          • John M

            I will, that makes at least two . ..

          • Warchild_70

            Add me to this list! My youngest son played JV and with is lack of height and weight I cringed when another LB twice his size came at a full gallop to vaporize the QB and in his way was a 5’4′ 145lb TB that was full of pi$$ and vinegar. When the dust settled and I opened my eyes there he was standing over said LB helping him up!! After that he told me I’m too small for this game would you be mad if I don’t play any more? I and his Mom were relieved that he saw up close just how violent this sport is.

          • Art Thiel

            I’m sure you count yourselves among the fortunates whose kids made the decision on their own.

  • poulsbogary

    If they could just slow the game down, the magnitude of these collision injuries could be vastly reduced. there are many ways to do this. Otherwise, we are staring at the prospects of flag football on Sunday afternoons.

    • notaboomer

      pretty sure that slow speed head collisions cause brain damage also. check out league of denial book and frontline on pbs documentary if you haven’t already.

      • Art Thiel

        As I just wrote above, you’re right. And Nota is also right, “League of Denial” is mandatory reading for serious football fans. Also recommended for viewing, because it’s better: “The United States of Football” by Redmond filmmaker Sean Pamphilon.

    • Art Thiel

      That’s one way to slow it down, isn’t it? Multiple studies have concluded that head trauma in football is not confined to spectacular high-speed collisions. Data is still being collected, but evidence points to the mild, low-speed thuds between linemen that happen dozens of times during the course of a week of practice and games creating, over a span of several years, at least as much damage as three or four knockout blows.

      • poulsbogary

        Your point is taken. The old jerry quarry effect. The other thing I have always cringed at is those celebration head-butts. Many of those look worse than live play on the field.

        • Art Thiel

          I think you see the number of those dropping significantly.

          • just passing thru

            There’s an old adage that boxing is brain damage by the installment plan. Clearly, football is too.

  • notaboomer

    time for football to end. i’m going to try to do my part and ignore football in the 2015-16 season.

    • Art Thiel

      Good for you. To be consistent, make sure to avoid all other sports/activities that carry high risk factors among participants.

      • notaboomer

        will do.

    • For more detail on Art’s comment, ignore NASCAR (in fact all auto racing), boat racing, boxing, UFC, baseball, basketball, and hockey. The Olympics are in 2016, so don’t contribute to that. Chess, Scrabble®, and curling are pretty low risk.

      • notaboomer

        wait, i can’t watch olympic curling or i’ll be impure? damn it!

        • RadioGuy

          Ever see those stones knock each other out? One of them is going to get really hurt someday and then what’ll happen to curling?

  • notaboomer

    if you don’t to end football, art, then you want kids to keep playing it at the risk of permanent brain damage? you know you could start covering ultimate.

    • Art Thiel

      I’m not big on nanny-state theatrics banning behaviors, services or occupations that bring no harm to others. Having said that, I appreciate smokers enjoying themselves outdoors rather than in restaurants.

      And I would very much appreciate an independent sports medicine outfit spelling out the risks to parents and kids of repetitive head trauma in all sports. Because as I’m sure you’ve read, girls’ soccer has a higher concussion rate at the high school level than football.

      • John M

        Did not know that. Don’t understand it, how that could happen? Why don’t they wear helmets??

        • Kirkland

          In all seriousness, it’s been looked at. A former MLS player who had a concussion history wore a rubber pad on his forehead to cushion the impact from heading the ball. We’ll see where the science and technology go.

      • Norman

        Football is a game where you cause harm to others. It’s not like a ski racer who only faces the elements and risk individually. What did Browner say before the Super Bowl?

        • Art Thiel

          But all parties in football agree on the same terms and conditions. There are no outside victims, nor collateral damage.

  • jafabian

    I saw Sid last night on the news and remembered the last two concussions of his career. Both were pretty brutal. I can see him deciding to retire after those. As far as Borland goes it’s almost refreshing to see a player at his age turning his back on money.

    • Art Thiel

      It’s the little ones that add up insidiously over the years.

  • Another excellent post, Art. All athletic competitions have a risk of injury. Life has a risk of injury. Everybody needs to understand the real risk in order to make an informed decision. The onus is on the NFL to ensure the real risk is understood before a player takes the field – every time a player takes the field.

    • Art Thiel

      Transparency is an elusive virtue for the NFL. And the kids aren’t listening once the sparkly million-dollar deal catches their eyes.

  • zippy0

    As a confessed sinner, glad I’m living in the declining age of Marlboros, meat eating, V-8’s and football– old fashioned football will certainly be here for a little while longer for us fossils, as I see boxing just moved back to the networks– a sport in which the objective is to give your opponent a concussion- Ali- Frazier fights were so great they ruined me forever–pass the moonshine, old age ain’t what its cracked up to be– here’s to the next generation – enjoy your youth and good luck!

  • JasonW

    I love the game of football, but I think we are watching its Apex right now. In the fifties the three biggest sports in America were baseball, boxing and horse racing. Boxing slowly started to fall off when people realized that getting hit in the head repeatedly caused one to be punch drunk. Moms quit letting their Jimmy’s and Joes participate. The trickle continued until now, where let’s face it it is around, but it does not attract the caliber of athlete that made it great at one time. Remember the fifties, the winters Friday night lights were the local high schools boxing matches? Every high school had a boxing team.

    They have even made boxing safer- the head gear one sees now was a response to the safety concerns. But the reputation is there (I am not saying boxing is safe, just safer).

    In sixty years this will be football. Around, yes. Anywhere near what it is now? No way.

    I love the game, but it is going to change a bunch in the coming years.

  • Tman

    Thank you for giving this subject the attention it deserves. The whole spectacle is Romanesque Gladiator Coliseum Behavior. Thumbs up, Thumbs down. The war references are appropriate..the whole production is Breast Beating Nationalism from the Star Spangled Banner to the military jet flyovers to parachutists landing in the Coliseum, er..Clink. Somehow a victory by “your Seattle Seahawks” is a victory for us as individuals and a city. Our individual and collective psyche’s were elevated into the stratosphere in 2014 and crushed by the last play of 2015.. Why do we respond this way? It’s just a game. They are Paul Allen’s Seattle Seahawks..not ours. The larger question is..Do we need such patriotic spectacles of viciousness to sustain us 6 months of the year or would a good old game of touch football with Russel Wilson and Tom Brady going at it suffice?

    • Art Thiel

      You’re into big sociological/culutural issues here, which is a worthy topic, but I can’t manage this late at night. I will tell you that the urges driving our sports affections are from the tribalism in our DNA. Logic can never withstand those primal feelings.