It’s understandable why some people believe Chris Borland represents the disintegration of modern values. For some, this was yet another case of a young American selfishly walking out on his professional or personal responsibilities. The kitchen got too hot, and instead of sticking and grinding like our parent’s generation, Borland walked away.
But this is alarmingly reactionary and oversimplified. Borland’s choice is not necessarily him shirking his duties. It may be the only choice to avoid tragedy down the road. And even if we’d like to use contracts as an extension of those old school values, there are clearly times when it’s necessary to break one. This, quite possibly, is one of them.
We’ll never know the truest reason for the 24-year-old linebacker to walk away from the 49ers. But Borland says it’s fear over long-term head trauma. “I mean, if it could potentially kill you – I know that’s a drastic way to put it, but it is a possibility – that really puts it in perspective to me,” he said. “I just don’t want to get in a situation where I’m negotiating my health for money. Who knows how many hits is too many?”
The cynic says he’s simply using health concerns as an easy excuse to escape. Jake Locker just retired because he said his heart just wasn’t in it. Jason Worlids left the game to follow his spiritual path. Maybe Borland is wrapping himself in the modern scare of CTE to mask one of these scenarios. Only Borland knows his real reason.
But to shower him with scorn because he “selfishly walked out on his contract” is antiquated thinking. That contract can be ripped up at any time by the NFL employer. That piece of parchment that should be held sacrosanct? It’s discarded without a blink of an eye in front offices. The double-standard is fascinating. A player gets injured on the field of play? He may find himself without a job. That player fears injury down the road? He better not walk out on that contract! A pretty damning one-way street.
Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, and Andre Waters all played long, hard years in the NFL. All three were tough dudes, men of cement, who played punishing defense, like Borland. And all three were damaged mentally enough to take their own lives after their carers were over. All three had enough trauma inflicted on their body they could not stand living their final decades on Earth.
Ray Easterling. Jovan Belcher. Steve Stonebreaker. All former NFL players who also committed suicide. Mike Webster. John Mackey. Cookie Gilchrist. All former NFL players whose lives have been dramatically altered because of significant CTE.
What if any one of these players could have seen into the future, and had a sinking feeling in their heart things just weren’t right. That their brain had started working differently, or their bodies were eroding. What if they saw into a crystal ball and decided it wasn’t worth it. The cars, the houses, the money. That as Borland put it, they didn’t want to negotiate their health for money. That no dollar figure was worth the pain. We would still insist they finish out the contract?
What if they stepped away in the middle of their careers, when the rest of their bodies were still able to hit, and run, and truck their opponents. We would slam them? Catcall them? Label them as “quitters” because it was in the middle of a contract?
We know too much about the NFL’s connection to CTE and brain damage not to realize the severity of their concern. And if Borland walked away in time to save his own life down the road, then it’s not indicative of a misadjusted generation. Then breaking that contract is a small price to pay.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.