It’s been three years since Chris Borland decided to retire from the NFL after one season, citing concerns about the long-term effects of head trauma. Borland continues to advocate for players’ health initiatives—and for health initiatives for U.S. military personnel and their families.
This Saturday, Borland and his brothers, Captain Joe Borland and Major John Borland, both of the U.S. Army, will participate in the Pat Tillman Foundation’s Pat’s Run in Tempe, Ariz., to raise money and awareness for the After the Impact Fund, a non-profit charitable organization that facilitates treatment and support for veterans and athletes with traumatic injuries. Borland spoke to Deadspin by phone on Monday. This conversation had been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’re raising money for the After the Impact Fund. What kind of background can you provide on the project for our readers?
After I quit [the NFL], I did some work for Gridiron Greats, which was an organization that provides assistance to former NFL players in need. The same leadership that formulated and ran Gridiron Greats was integral in forming and running After the Impact Fund. So I knew all of the leadership and just reached out to them and said, “I love what you’re doing, if there’s ever anything I could do for you, we’d love to know.” Having two brothers in the Army, After the Impact Fund’s mission really hits home. This idea to run in Pat’s run came up a couple months ago. My brother was in Iraq at the time, but thankfully he’s back and able to participate. It’s the perfect synergy with Pat Tillman and Pat’s fund, and After the Impact Fund—it just means a lot to all of us.
You’ve been outspoken in your opposition to tackle football for young people. What do you think of the changes the league is making to the tackling rule, which will prohibit players from leading with the crowns of their helmets? It seems like a good thing, but it also seems like more of the same-old, same-old liability shifting when it comes to head trauma.
To the first part of the question: Yes, I have [said tackling ought to be banned in youth football]. Waiting until high school is actually agreeable to people who love football and people who are concerned about the brain health of those who play it. As far as the NFL’s latest rule change, I’d like to say it’s trending in the right direction and that it’ll improve things, but honestly, as a former middle linebacker, I don’t know how you referee that. I think what will likely happen is that at some point during the season, they’ll flag a player for an egregious hit, make an example of it, and use it as PR to say, “Hey, the game’s safer, look at this.” But that’s not how CTE develops—it’s about the accumulation of subconcussive hits. I know players are more interested in [saying], “Why don’t you let us play the game and give us health insurance and guaranteed contracts versus trying to have your cake and eat it, too?”
Right. I know they still have to iron out some of the details here, but I don’t know how they’re going to enforce this. Past rule changes have left everyone confused about what constitutes a hit. The league is still trying to figure out what a catch is, and now they’re going to make judgment calls about who lowered the crown of his helmet first? It just seems it’s going to create a huge mess.
Yeah, so many times there are crown hits that didn’t involve a lowering of the head. Maybe you were, as a running back, avoiding one tackle, but because you did that it looks like you lowered your head into the next one. And vice versa for defensive players. You can see someone getting fined for a play that you’ll later see in advertising. And that’s maddening.
You mentioned guaranteed contracts and health insurance earlier. I know you only played one year, back in 2014, but how much awareness did you notice among players about those topics and their long-term importance?
In terms of health or guaranteed contracts?
Both, at least as far as changing the landscape for the benefit of players. Last year, NFLPA president Eric Winston told me the awareness of labor issues and communication about it was much better than it was when he entered the league in 2006. But what’s your take?
I think there’s a varied amount of expertise in an NFL locker room. I think of course older guys and veterans have a better understanding. I don’t think very many young players have really come to terms with the fact that their careers are so brief. Many may not know that their contracts are not guaranteed, or that the settlement excludes players from suing for CTE for the next 65 years. It’s tough. I don’t know what leverage the [NFLPA] or players have. The NFL’s essentially a monopoly, and they can say players have the choice to play. It’s difficult, but I’d say overall the awareness of these issues is fairly low amongst players.
You talked about marijuana on Arian Foster’s podcast a couple of months back. The league has taken a very cynical approach to permitting the use of marijuana, both as a palliative and for recreational use. Do you ever think that will change, and how might it change, if it ever does?
I’m actually a little optimistic about this. I think one of the reasons the NFL is apprehensive about okaying marijuana is the cultural divide for their viewership. Our attorney general [Jeff Sessions] is from a place in Alabama where marijuana use is probably still very taboo. I don’t think they’re apt to change it any time soon because they want to retain the viewership of mostly flyover states. But I think with the opioid epidemic hitting those places really badly, and non-psychoactive marijuana being a healthier alternative, I think the future is promising for everyone in our country, and the NFL could take a leadership role in that.
What’s your opinion of the concussion protocol? It strikes me as an obvious improvement from the way brain injuries were handled in the past, especially now that independent neurologists and spotters have input, and that a unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant must clear players to return, even during the week. But the league has been reluctant to enforce its provisions, instead preferring to zero in on perceived problems with it to take the blame off of teams.
I haven’t gone through it, but just based off other things I know some of the tests they use in the protocol, I’m concerned that it’s not objective entirely. There’s one test called the ImPACT Test. One, players could very easily throw the initial baseline test. We used to—not quite throw it, that’s strong, but we wouldn’t do our best, in hopes that if and when we were concussed and had to take the test, our numbers wouldn’t be so different that we couldn’t get back out on the field. So I know that’s concerning.
And then you always have to look at who’s [examining players between games, even beyond the protocol]. The men and women that are hired to take care of players’ health, their salaries are paid by the team. Before games, you would see team docs and trainers, and they’re every bit as as excited to, say, beat the Raiders as you are; their emotions are tied up in it. I don’t know how you work around that, but as a player that’s something that you have to be concerned about.
Tell me more about how players fudged that ImPACT Test. SB Nation did a big story last year about players finding ways to beat the protocol tests, but this is the first I’ve heard of players doing anything about the baseline assessments.
The ImPACT Test was developed a team doctor [Joseph Maroon] with the Steelers. It’s a computer test, and every player now takes the test before the season. We knew enough in college to not do your best. I think if you were concussed and pulled from a game and had to take the test again, there’s a disparity between the numbers that would mean you’d have to stay out. We didn’t want that to happen. We wouldn’t entirely throw it, but we certainly wouldn’t try our best in hopes that if and when that concussion happens and you had to take it a second time, you could get by.
You were 24 years old when you retired. Do you miss playing at all?
I really, really deeply miss about five percent of the experience. Really just the games and the locker room. There’s nothing like it outside of football, so the thrill of playing and then to be around—I wouldn’t say everybody was your friend, but dozens and dozens of friends—and everybody has a single purpose. It’s hard to replicate that outside of the game. But overall, I’m not that wistful. I enjoyed playing, and I’ve got a full and happy life now, so it’s not like I’m looking back longingly at my time in football.
Colin Kaepernick is back in the news, and now Eric Reid is, too. Both guys were teammates of yours. What do you make of neither of them being on a roster at this point, with the obviously common thread being their protests during the national anthem?
I think it’s criminal. Colin is better than a lot of these guys who are starting. Eric is one of the most dynamic, talented, and professional players I’ve encountered. I think it’s ridiculous. I think they both deserve to be on a roster. I know Colin has sued the NFL for collusion. It will be interesting to see if owners’ correspondence comes to light because I’d like to see what they were saying about him while he was protesting.