When the San Francisco 49ers drafted linebacker Chris Borland in the third round of the 2014 NFL draft, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock had this to say:
"In a division of hardheads, the 49ers have just added a thundering hardhead. He's too short. He's too slow. I don't care, he can play."
Even setting aside for a moment the use of the term "hardhead" -- a term that maybe isn't the best way to describe football players these days -- this is a particularly telling little scouting report. What Mayock is saying is that for someone like Borland to make it in the NFL, Borland will have to find something to offset his inherent physical shortcomings, namely his height and his speed. His body, according to Mayock, is not physically built to be a successful NFL player, which means more will be required of him. He will need something to separate him from men who are bigger, and stronger, and faster than he is. He will need to find an advantage. He will need to find his superpower.
Mayock believed he had found this advantage: Borland would be fearless. Borland would not care that he was chasing bigger and faster men, because he is a "thundering hardhead." Borland's superpower is that he is willing to knock around larger men with disregard for his own safety. This is why Mayock said "he can play." Borland will knock you on your ass and not care a whit.
And Mayock's scouting report was exactly correct. Borland was a revelation his rookie season, starting by midseason, notching a season-high 18 tackles in a game against the Rams, winning NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 11 and ultimately winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month award for November. He was perhaps most renowned for this tackle of Tre Mason in that Rams game.
49ers.com called it "the can't-miss play of the week," and it really was. Borland picked Mason up off the ground and threw him on his head. It was thrilling. It was why you watch football.
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Monday night, Borland announced his retirement from football, telling ESPN's Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, "I just honestly want to do what's best for my health. From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk." Borland told them that this was something he had been thinking about even before the season had started, writing a letter to his parents in the preseason saying he wanted his NFL career to be brief. He told ESPN, "I just thought to myself, 'What am I doing? Is this how I'm going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I've learned and know about the dangers?'"
Last month, he retweeted Neil deGrasse Tyson:
And no one would know that better than Borland. He is a "thundering hardhead." Borland, because he shorter and slower, knew the only way for him to continue to make a living was to make himself that bullet. So he decided to stop.
His decision was as rational and logical as any decision a person could make. Borland made $574,000 last season, plus a $617,000 signing bonus that the 49ers can retrieve $463,000 of. So Borland made about $730,000 last year. Not a bad little nest egg to start one's life out at the age of 24. Borland was born the year Emmitt Smith was Rookie of the Year. He has a lot of life to go.
Borland's decision-making process is what represents the fundamental danger to the NFL. It's not that it's going to run out of players. In December, Bloomberg released a poll saying that 50 percent of Americans -- and 62 percent of Americans making more than $100,000 a year -- don't want their kids to play football, something that the Borland decision will likely only increase. But that doesn't mean that people will stop watching football. We've spent years now learning more about the dangers of football, and the television ratings for the sport have only grown. We can hem and haw about how brutal football is, but collectively, America is not voting with its feet. It wants football. As I wrote after the Bloomberg poll: "Rich people might not want their own kids to play. But that doesn't mean they don't want someone else's kids to play."
And they will play. Or, as Green Bay Packers director of player personnel Eliot Wolf put it on Twitter this morning, in tone-deaf but undeniably true fashion:
Anyone worried about the future of football should see the amount of calls & emails we get from kids literally begging to get into pro days— Eliot Wolf (@eliotwolf46) March 17, 2015
No, the fear for the NFL can be found in a Pro Football Talk reaction to the Borland news, written by Mike Florio. Pro Football Talk is as close as the NFL has to a company newsletter. I mean that less to accuse the site of being a water-carrier for the league -- it has criticized the league on plenty of occasions -- and more as a representative of league thinking. Pro Football Talk does many things well, but one thing it's terrible at is perspective: It's so tapped into the league's mindset, and the mindset of those who work in it, that it can't help but miss the larger picture. Nobody on an assembly line can see what they're making until it's done. A friend once joked that a meteor could wipe out the greater Detroit area and the PFT headlines would read "Lions Begin Protracted Battle For New Stadium" and "Stafford: Questionable For Week 14?"
Florio's piece on Tuesday morning isn't worried about Borland; it's not even that worried about the 49ers and their surprise need for a linebacker. It's worried about scouts. Specifically, it is worried about the sudden emergence of a new skillset required of scouts: The ability to recognize when someone is in danger of realizing that this game will kill them. Here's Florio:
There may be no way of spotting a propensity to choose to retire early, especially since the phenomenon is new and still too rare to allow teams to articulate potential factors. But in San Francisco, G.M. Trent Baalke undoubtedly has been asking himself whether he missed whatever evidence there may have been to indicate that Borland may not be long for the NFL. Moving forward, look for teams to try to come up with ways to ensure that players on whom a draft pick will be invested will be invested in the profession. Already, many scouts focus on whether a player truly loves football. Borland's decision raises the stakes for teams intent on finding players who have a high level of devotion to the sport.
When you take a step back, it's sort of a staggering paragraph to read. Basically, Florio is saying that the only real response the NFL and those who work inside it can have to someone like Borland making the rational, self-preserving decision he made is to say, we need to look exclusively for people incapable of making rational, self-preserving decisions. In fact, not only does Florio -- and, by proxy, the NFL executives he's surely speaking for -- require scouts to avoid drafting players capable of making rational self-preserving decisions; he actually tasks them with predicting whether any of them might someday do so, down the line. This is essentially institutionalizing ignorance: This is making poor and uniformed decision-making part of the business plan.
This is the problem for the NFL. The response is not to change the game itself; the response is to find people who do not understand that the game needs to be changed. It sees players -- humans -- as churn … as short-term investments, solely. It is pretending that everything is fine because the money is flowing so freely.
And maybe everything is fine. Maybe Americans are supporting Borland because they know someone will replace him -- someone will always replace him -- so they will have their games to watch in continued record-breaking numbers. Maybe people care only in the micro sense and will never change their viewing habits. But we now have an open admission that the NFL requires its players to give up their freedoms and health to keep this sport going, and if they don't, dammit, they'll find someone who will. That may work for a while. But it's not sustainable. The problem is not Borland. The problem is that more Borlands are coming. The NFL can accept that fact, or it can hide from it. So far, it's the latter.