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Former 49er Chris Borland discusses why he retired from football at 26

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Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada report for ESPN:

ONE DAY IN April, the NFL asked Chris Borland to take a random drug test. The timing of this request was, in a word, bizarre, since Borland, a San Francisco 49ers linebacker, had retired a month earlier after a remarkable rookie season. He said he feared getting brain damage if he continued to play.

Borland had been amazed at the reaction to his decision, the implications of which many saw as a direct threat to the NFL. And now here was an email demanding that he pee in a cup before a league proctor within 24 hours or fail the test. “I figured if I said no, people would think I was on drugs,” he said recently. That, he believed, “would ruin my life.” As he thought about how to respond, Borland began to wonder how random this drug test really was.

What did the NFL still want with him? Nobody could have held out much hope that he’d change his mind. On Friday, March 13, when Borland retired via email, he attached a suggested press release, then reaffirmed his intentions in conversations with 49ers officials. Instead of announcing Borland’s retirement, the team sent him a bill — an unsubtle reminder that he’d have to return most of his $617,436 signing bonus if he followed through. That Monday, Borland, knowing he was forgoing at least $2.35 million, not to mention a promising career, made the announcement himself to Outside the Lines. He has since elaborated on the decision to everyone from Face the Nation to Charlie Rose to undergraduates at Wisconsin, where he was an All-American.

Borland has consistently described his retirement as a pre-emptive strike to (hopefully) preserve his mental health. “If there were no possibility of brain damage, I’d still be playing,” he says. But buried deeper in his message are ideas perhaps even more threatening to the NFL and our embattled national sport. It’s not just that Borland won’t play football anymore. He’s reluctant to even watch it, he now says, so disturbed is he by its inherent violence, the extreme measures that are required to stay on the field at the highest levels and the physical destruction 
he has witnessed to people he loves and admires — especially to their brains.

Borland has complicated, even tortured, feelings about football that grow deeper the more removed he is from the game. He still sees it as an exhilarating sport that cultivates discipline and teamwork and brings communities and families together. “I don’t dislike football,” he insists. “I love football.” At the same time, he has come to view it as a dehumanizing spectacle that debases both the people who play it and the people who watch it.

“Dehumanizing sounds so extreme, but when you’re fighting for a football at the bottom of the pile, it is kind of dehumanizing,” he said during a series of conversations over the spring and summer. “It’s like a spectacle of violence, for entertainment, and you’re the actors in it. You’re complicit in that: You put on the uniform. And it’s a trivial thing at its core. It’s make-believe, really. That’s the truth about it.”

How one person can reconcile such opposing views of football — as both cherished American tradition and trivial activity so violent that it strips away our humanity — is hard to see. Borland, 24, 
is still working it out. He wants to be respectful to friends who are still playing and former teammates and coaches, but he knows that, in many ways, he is the embodiment of the growing conflict over football, a role that he is improvising, sometimes painfully, as he goes along.

More than anything, Borland says he doesn’t want to tell anyone what to do. This is the central conflict of his post-football life. He rejected the sport, a shocking public act that still reverberates, in tremors, from the NFL to its vast pipeline of youth leagues. Yet he’s wary of becoming a symbol for all the people who want to end — or save — football.

We trailed Borland for five months as he embarked on a journey that drove him deeper into the NFL’s concussion crisis and forced him to confront the sport in ways he avoided while playing. One day in June, he returned to Archbishop Alter High School in Kettering, Ohio, to visit with his old coach, Ed Domsitz. “We’re in a period now where, for the next 10 or 15 years, many of us, we need to figure out a way to save this game,” said Domsitz, a southwest Ohio legend who has coached for 40 years.

Jovial and gray-haired, Domsitz was standing on the Alter practice field, a lake of synthetic green turf. He tried to recruit Borland to his cause.

“Why don’t you come back and coach the linebackers?” Domsitz asked. “We need to teach these kids the safe way to tackle.”

“Some of my best tackles were the most dangerous!” Borland responded, laughing.

“You’re exactly the kind of people we need,” the coach insisted.

Borland lowered his head, embarrassed. “I can’t do that,” he said, almost inaudibly. “Maybe I could be the kicking coach.”

Later, away from Domsitz, Borland explained: “I wouldn’t want to be charged with the task of making violence safer. I think that’s a really difficult thing to do.”

In the months following his retirement, Borland has offered himself up as a human guinea pig to the many researchers who want to scan and study his post-NFL brain. He has met with the former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army and with mental health experts at the Carter Center in Atlanta. He has literally shrunk, dropping 30 pounds from his 248-pound playing weight while training for the San Francisco Marathon, which he ran in late July.

As the Niners reported to training camp in July, Borland was examining the Book of Kells, a 1,200-year-old manuscript, at the Trinity College Library in Dublin, the start of a six-week European vacation.

In many ways, Borland is like any bright, ambitious recent college graduate who is trying to figure out the rest of his life. In other ways, he’s the most dangerous man in football.

On that day back in April, Borland stared hard at his iPhone, pondering what to do about the NFL’s summons to a post-retirement drug test. The league says it reserves the right to test players — even after they’ve retired — to ensure that they don’t dodge a test, then return. But given the stakes, and the NFL’s dubious history on concussions, it occurred to Borland that maybe, just maybe, he was being set up.

“I don’t want to be a conspiracy theorist,” he says. “I just wanted to be sure.” Borland agreed to submit a urine sample to the NFL’s representative, who drove in from Green Bay and administered the test in the Wisconsin trainer’s room. Then he hired a private firm for $150 to test him independently. Both tests came back negative, according to Borland.

“I don’t really trust the NFL,” he says.


TOWARD THE END of his rookie season, Borland read League of Denial, our 2013 book chronicling the NFL’s efforts to bury the concussion problem. After his last game, he contacted us through former St. Louis Cardinals linebacker David Meggyesy, who also walked away from the NFL, in 1969. Meggyesy wrote a best-selling memoir, Out of Their League, in which he described football as “one of the most dehumanizing experiences a person can face.” Borland, a history major at Wisconsin, had met Meggyesy during his senior year, after hearing him give a guest lecture titled “Sports, Labor and Social Justice in the 21st Century.”

It’s tempting to draw parallels between Borland and Meggyesy, both of whom reject the NFL’s easy narrative of cartoon violence and heroic sacrifice. Late in his pro career, Meggyesy was benched for his political activism. At Wisconsin, in 2011, Borland was punished with extra conditioning for skipping class to protest Republican Gov. (and current presidential candidate) Scott Walker, who was trying to limit collective bargaining for public employees. Borland marched with three cousins, one a teacher, and carried a sign that read: recall walker.

But there are significant differences between the two men. . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

Robert Stern [is] a neurology professor at Boston University, the leading institution for the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Over the past decade, the disease has been found in the brains of 87 out of the 
91 dead NFL players who were examined. In late February, a BU-hosted “consensus conference” concluded that CTE is a distinct neurodegenerative disease found only in patients who experienced brain trauma. The NFL rejected its link to football for years.

And this:

Borland, somewhat derisively, calls “the overwhelming tide of marketing about how great and awesome football is.” Borland scoffs at the oft-repeated clichés about football’s unique ability to impart wisdom. “It’s too bad Gandhi never played football,” he said one afternoon. “Maybe he would have picked up some valuable lessons.”

Written by LeisureGuy

31 August 2015 at 2:29 pm

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