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Sports obituary of a trendsetter

Apparently rugby isn’t good for your brain./ Peter Clarke
Apparently rugby isn’t good for your brain./ Peter Clarke

Former 49er linebacker gets out while he still can

It has been said that athletes die twice in life. The first occasion on which their lives turn to ashes is when their career is lowered unceremoniously into the ground. The second, however, is the only one with a funeral. Nobody wears black when a multi-millionaire finally succumbs to his or her body’s wishes, when battling in whatever discipline they have chosen becomes too much or means too little.

Sports is the playground of the unforgiving, which is why we are so shocked when an athlete leaves on their own terms, before they have “paid the price”, before the effects of sporting-inspired hard labour have robbed them of much of their motor function. When they decide to leave before father time, or their family, or their doctor tells them they have no choice in the matter, there is often a sense that something must have been wrong. That they lacked something, whether it is grit, character, or a clean bill of health. Our culture, on the whole, cannot fathom the idea that a professional athlete would willingly give up their place on the societal ladder before a younger, cheaper, and better alternative could eliminate them at the appropriate time. The concept of pro-activeness, recognizing the dangers and acting accordingly, does not often enter into the casual fan’s mind. And yet, the dangers are there.

Our sports roundtable asked if Chris Borland made the right decision in retiring! Check out right here what our all-star panel of writers thought about this move. 

CTE, arthritis, post-concussion-syndrome, insert numerous broken bones here, are all front and centre on the list of workplace hazards for those who compete professionally, an ever-expanding dossier of prices paid, pro sports’ deluded version of checks and balances. A fee that many feel is worth paying.

On Mar. 16, at the age of 24, the San Francisco 49ers’ Chris Borland became one of the few that decided the opposite. Having suffered through injuries during his time playing football, the linebacker, who many thought had a long and successful career ahead of him, chose to survive that first passing earlier than most expected and move on from football. No hearse was called. Instead, the media latched onto his story and began to dissect it from all the relevant angles.

Borland’s retirement brought about a myriad of reactions. Those that can be painted broadly as against contact sports immediately started penning the NFL’s obituary. This was just the beginning, they said. No longer would pigskin reign supreme. A death sentence had been delivered.

Others, quick to defend their favourite sport, treated Borland as an outlier, portraying the league as one that can survive even the worthiest of foes, including the head trauma sustained by many of its pad-sporting employees. Borland, so the thought process went, would move on to other endeavors – carefully characterized as bigger things so as to be seen as being supportive – with his sizeable signing bonus (much of which he has decided to return) and University of Wisconsin education in tow.

Of particular interest, however, was how fellow players reacted. Many were supportive, even inspired, by Borland’s decision, but as was to be expected, a few were not so sympathetic. The common thread, however, was something along these lines: “Wow! Can’t believe that Chris Borland retired. What a great young linebacker with a good career ahead of him. I could never do what he did.” And so the narrative continues. Athletes, now aware of the consequence of their choices, seeing a fellow coworker doing what, at the very least, they wish they had the willpower to consider.

But the majority will not make that decision. They will continue playing for whatever reason drives them, whether it be the love of the game, the compensation they receive as professional athletes, or the intoxicating thrill of playing sports at the highest level possible. This is why Borland’s situation cannot be constrained.

There will not be wholesale changes. Andrew Luck is not going to retire tomorrow. Even if he does, there will be another quarterback to take his place. Running backs, despite having one of the lowest career life spans statistically, will continue to flood the league’s backfields.

And money is a large reason for that. Imagine, you’re an athlete, your family can be generally characterized as poor, and you have been given a tremendous opportunity to lift them out of that life. This is the monkey’s paw of career decisions. On one hand, you have tremendous earning potential, you have (hopefully) gained some measure of education that would not have been available to you had you decided to pursue another career path, and you have been offered hundreds of thousands of dollars to play a game that you (more than likely) love.

On the other hand, with this opportunity comes potential peril. You could, after your career is done, be left with debilitating injuries, diminished mental faculties, and the lifestyle that you and your family get accustomed to may, one day, prove itself unsustainable. As ESPN analyst Adam Schefter tweeted out, “… Not many jobs pay twenty-four-year-olds 540K for six months of work.”

And therein lies the problem. The positives of what Chris Borland, until recently, did for a living out weigh the negatives – at least in society’s view. This is exactly why Borland is a trendsetter.

While he will not cause the NFL to implode, he has inspired debate. Now, Borland’s decision is a choice that will be available to athletes in the future. Before, it was largely assumed that those who made the same choice as Borland would be labeled the almost pseudo-libelous title of a quitter. No competitor wants to be designated such a thing.

When writers say that athletes die twice, they mean that what gave the person in question’s life meaning is gone. Gone is the routine, the camaraderie, all the reasons athletes cite as to why they stay past their prime and continue to endanger themselves. Chris Borland’s decision, in contrast, can be considered a celebration of life because the dangers of the NFL are no longer a concern as he leaves with his reputation and his body intact. More than what most can say.

About John Loeppky

I am an athlete with a writing problem, or a writer with a sports problem, you decide. When I’m not editing, playing wheelchair sports, or advocating for the disabled, you can find me de-stressing with friends.