The San Francisco 49ers' official statement on Chris Borland's retirement doesn't mention why he's retiring, of course. It has a quote from the general manager on how they respect his decision, and a big fat paragraph on his accomplishments in a successful rookie season, but nothing stands out quite like the big, blinking lack of curiosity: why would a 24-year-old walk away from a game he appears to be very, very good at?
This blank spot describes the precise shape and inability of an NFL team's ability to admit, or address the implications of, the obvious: Borland is quitting football because he fears what it will do to his brain.
To get out now, Borland is giving up a large amount of money by any definition. He's completed one year of a four-year, $2.9 million rookie contract that included a signing bonus of more than $617,000. The 49ers have the right to recover three-fourths of that signing bonus, though it's not clear if they will do so.
For a 24-year-old to give up that much money on the basis of a theoretical risk is evidence that football's head trauma crisis is no longer just about scientists issuing worrisome studies or editorialists intoning about the future of the NFL. It's also not, as some of the game's advocates have tried to have it, about football serving as a theater in which red and blue America can stage a proxy war. At this point, it's about the fact that football destroys some or many of the people who play it, and the consequences of that knowledge. One of those follow-ons is that a certain and increasing segment of the public will think of the NFL as something like the Philip Morris of sports. Another is that a certain number of talented young athletes will choose not to play the game.
This is threatening to the status quo—toxic, in some ways—and so the debate today is going to be about the larger picture, the future of football and especially of the NFL. Judging from the timelines of the NFL's PR guys, it's going to be ugly and fallacious:
When Peter King is the voice of reason, everything is terrible.
For all this, though, it's worth admitting that nearly everyone has an interest in overstating the impact of what's going on right now. Reformists would like to think that history is on their side and that there's no going back from here. NFL loyalists see an advantage in claiming the game is under immediate threat. Neither is really true.
Football is a commercial and cultural juggernaut. It will not be one forever, because nothing is, and the growth of the mindset that led Chris Borland to leave may very well end up playing a large role in its fall. But we're very far away from that point. The fact that this is such a big story points to just how anomalous Borland's decision is. The NFL has thrived amid the agonizing, drawn-out declines and deaths of hundreds of its good soldiers. It can handle a 24-year-old who believes there are more important things than football.
The context of Borland's decision seems settled for now. He's an exception, and if he does turn out to be the start of something, we won't know it for a generation. (A growing cultural distaste for the game is more likely to show up as athletes never playing it at all, not players getting through Wisconsin and into the NFL before leaving.) But on a micro level, it's tempting to debate—and to offer value judgments on—whether Borland made the right call.
He's young, he's healthy, he says he's going back to school for a possible career in sport management. Every instinct says, Yes, of course Borland made a correct decision. But how the hell would I know? Or you? Maybe he would have loved his football career and come out wealthy and relatively unscathed. Maybe he'll spend his spend his life regretting not knowing. It feels strange and slightly disingenuous to offer him congratulations today, then turn around and write about the upcoming draft. I obviously don't want anyone to suffer permanent brain injury, but I also watch and enjoy the sport. I'm clearly torn (or at least ethically weak). It's in my immediate interests for great athletes to play football.
So I'll leave off any emotional urge to turn this into an encomium for Borland's future. But I'll happily take some satisfaction from the fact that the present-day discussion of football and player safety has enough nuance, accessibility, and heft to make Borland feel like he's making an informed decision, and to be so completely sure of himself. All you can do is hope players know what they're in for, something the NFL actively tried to hide for decades. This is progress.