The string of retirements by Chris Borland and other NFL players in the prime of their careers recently is just the tip of the iceberg for the sport’s looming tower of health and associated public relations problems.
We’ve known for some time that football is a dangerous game and that it has, despite the NFL’s insistence to the contrary, become progressively more violent. Players have grown bigger and faster, are rampantly taking growth hormones and performance enhancing drugs and are using fortified helmets and shoulder pads as weapons instead of protection.
But Borland’s bold move this week to walk away from the game despite an entire career ahead of him is emblematic of football’s fundamental problem, which is that players with the means to do so are walking away from the game in greater numbers for safety reasons.
Should this trend continue, professional football will quickly come to resemble a real-life version of the Hunger Games. Rather than the Roman Empire model, where gladiators were slaves who didn’t have any choice about their fate, the NFL model will involve seducing players from the poorer, oppressed ranks of society with fame and fortune to provide entertainment for the upper classes.
While the privileged armchair quarterback crowd amuses themselves with NFL RedZone and fantasy football, the competitors ultimately pay with their lives.
For Borland and similarly situated players, quitting early is a perfectly rational decision. He has a college degree that will allow him to develop a new career, and a middle-class family to help support him financially if need be.
But as Maurice Clarett, the former Ohio State star, pointed out this week, many players – especially ones with disadvantaged childhoods – do not have this luxury. Players who must provide not only for themselves but for entire families and entourages have little choice but to absorb the trauma in exchange for a paycheck.
Other ex-pros that partied their way through college or were assisted by plagiarized papers and sham classes can also find adjusting to a real-world career difficult.
As parents increasingly enroll their children in soccer and other safer sports, and public figures from Barack Obama to LeBron James question whether or not they would allow their sons (actual or hypothetical) to play the sport, the pool of potential NFL players will continue to be siphoned off to other sports.
But even if the pool of potential players in the US shrinks by one-third, there would still be plenty of talented players to fill 32 NFL teams and keep fans intrigued.
So the league’s worst nightmare isn’t necessarily this demographic problem, it’s the driving force behind the demographic problem. It’s only a matter of time before the NFL’s opponents, and safety advocates like Borland and t he doctors he consulted, discover a clear causational link between playing in the NFL and gravely higher risks of head trauma and premature death.
Should this linkage demonstrate attempts by the league to cover up or otherwise prevent disclosure of this information, which it likely would, a shifting of public interest – unable to continue entertaining themselves with such barbarity – toward other sports seems inevitable.
The next challenge for the league will arise when a young, promising player from a disadvantaged background with no other economic opportunities in life decides to hang up his cleats. Once that happens, and a player with no fallback option quits out of safety fears, there will be no more excuses to be made.