Had Chris Borland been a marquee player, his retirement — premature, perhaps, at 24 — would have been a thunderclap. Parents would have unenrolled their children in Pop Warner in legion, desiccating collegiate pipelines and thereby bringing the NFL to its knees. But Chris Borland, though dependable and improving with each season, was not a marquee player. Borland was not even the most recognizable player on his team, let alone in the league.
Had it been Patrick Willis, who also retired unexpectedly this offseason, we might have paid attention. Had it been Tom Brady, who, abetted by a great deal of luck, locked up his fourth Super Bowl at the 11th hour, tremors would have reverberated throughout both the sports and non-sports realms, if only because Gisele would have made a scene. But it was neither, and all that will result from Borland’s retirement is finger-pointing and hand-wringing and wild speculation.
Not Willis nor Brady, however, would have sufficed. Borland is intact, and the spate of suicides among former NFL players may not necessarily be linked with devastating blows to the head; after all, causality is elusive, especially to skeptics and hardcore fans. In all likelihood, it will take death, maybe several, to convince the masses to forsake it.
What does this say about our culture?
Maybe that we have a penchant for voyeurism. Maybe that our basest instincts desperately need an outlet. Maybe that we are likelier to exempt violence, no matter how brutal, if it masquerades as sport. All of these conclusions explain why the NFL still rakes in cash. More importantly, they explain why Chris Borland, the maverick, has not made a dent.
We would be remiss to assume that real change will emanate from within rather than without — which is to say that fans, rather than players, are catalysts for change. History tells us that change imposed from without merely reinforces the status quo, the more combustible scenarios invariably culminating in conflict. The NFL, the quintessential reactionary, is no exception.
The tragedy of early retirement is that it cannot be exploited. Chris Borland, to his credit, did not elect to retire in a last-ditch reform effort; according to Borland, he is retiring because he does not want to inflict further harm on his body, and we have no reason to doubt him. Instead, we pounced on it, thinking that we might bring his choice to bear on the NFL. We were wrong.
The NFL is adamant that its product is safe. It highlights that its players, on average, live longer than the typical American. It has empaneled experts to investigate the “epidemic” of domestic abuse perpetrated by its players against their girlfriends, wives and children, though nothing, of course, has yet come of it.
Profit is the bottom line, and the Chris Borlands of the world will not diminish the NFL’s margin; in fact, the NFL remains as popular as ever. In the wake of the Ray Rice scandal, women did not leave the NFL in droves. When it surfaced that Adrian Peterson beat his kid, youth football continued uninterrupted. What indicated that Chris Borland, of all people, would do what his forbears, and the transgressions of his predecessors, could not?
For now, let us congratulate Chris Borland on his retirement. Let us support him as he forgoes oodles of cash in order to safeguard his wellbeing. In order to earn our respect, Borland does not need to be a trailblazer, but a man who has his wits about him.