The table was enormous and sat perched on a dais of lipstick-red carpet. The bright lights made me squint, and squinting reminded me I was wearing makeup.
Days earlier, I’d announced to the world I was retiring from the NFL.
“Face The Nation” interviews are preceded by a long, slow, dramatic countdown. I briefly got lost between nerves and my incredulity at the need for a 10-count, but thankfully regained my focus before the first question.
I was there to try to explain why, at 24 years old, I was walking away from the remainder of a nearly $3 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers and the life of a professional football player.
The host of “Face The Nation,” Bob Schieffer, was an important figure in my childhood years. Every Sunday in the fall, he occupied my family’s time after church and before the NFL pregame shows. We had only one TV in our house, so I owed most of my political awareness during my youth to the combination of CBS programing and my impatience for the start of football games.
Schieffer began with simple questions about my decision to quit the NFL over brain injury concerns. I told him it was a personal choice based on my own research and my experience as a player. An NFL graphic showing the league’s latest PR messaging surrounding brain injury followed. I reminded Schieffer and viewers of the wide gulf between claims about safety in football and the realities of playing linebacker; players routinely experience concussion symptoms their teams and leagues can’t ― and won’t ― recognize. Near the end of the interview, I stressed to players that they aren’t commodities.
The “Face The Nation” interview was brief. I said my piece and flew back to San Francisco later that morning.
“Too often, the football safety discussion gets bogged down in ideology rather than focusing on facts and progress.”
Frontline’s “League of Denial” investigation in 2013, followed by the feature film “Concussion” in 2015, introduced most of the world to football’s brain injury crisis; however, the evidence was mounting long before. Jeanne Marie Laskas’ 2009 feature article in GQ summarizes the work brain injury researchers were conducting during my youth and high school football days. In 2012, when I was playing college ball at the University of Wisconsin, research out of the University of Michigan revealed alarming rates of neurodegenerative diseases among former NFL players. The league itself estimated 28 percent of retirees will suffer from brain damage in their lifetime in a 2014 report conducted during litigation between the NFL and former players.
But a debate on safety in football is difficult absent experience. Had I stopped playing football following high school, I wouldn’t understand why a 24-year-old would quit the NFL just one year into his professional career. If I hadn’t made hundreds upon hundreds of tackles during college and my time in the pros, I might be susceptible to the thinking a player can do so safely. My post-high school experiences gave the mounting and damning evidence that football causes brain damage far more gravity.
The tragic stories I’d heard murmurings about since my high school days weren’t outliers like I’d been led to believe. My breadth of football experience, my injury history and my all-or-nothing goal to become one of the best linebackers in the NFL, combined with all I’d been learning about the game’s neurological effects on the brain, convinced me I’d be wise in choosing another career.
I never thought my choice to leave the NFL would lead to “Face the Nation.” When I first thought of quitting, I cringed at the notion of becoming a football safety advocate. I was making a personal decision; I never set out to influence others. However, in the almost three years since I left the NFL, evidence this sport has severe detrimental effects on its athletes has continued to accumulate. A 2017 study diagnosed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in all but one of the 111 former NFL players’ brains examined. And we’re no longer only talking about the negative health consequences playing football has on professionals: Boston University’s age of exposure study determined “youth exposure to football may have long-term neurobehavioral consequences.”
I’ve come to realize my experiences may enable me to help others find solutions to the game’s safety issues. Still, I’ve struggled to find my place in the ongoing debate as someone who appreciates nuance, but lives in a binary “anti” or “pro” football world. Folks who blithely disregard the benefits of football likely haven’t played or are being intellectually dishonest. The game, perhaps more than any other, requires absolute dedication and teamwork. Yes, I ultimately quit, and if I ever have a son, he won’t play, but I’ll always cherish the lessons I learned from football. Conversely, the folly of football fanatics is simpler: They are willing to risk damaging developing brains for the sake of a sport. That is madness.
There is no easy way to address brain damage in this game. The road forward is a complicated one, and as we look toward the future of football, I’m genuinely curious, and often discouraged, by people who seem more eager to share their opinion than become informed. Those quarrels often play out one tweet at a time and are far from productive. Too often, the football safety discussion gets bogged down in ideology rather than focusing on facts and progress.
“At 24 years old, I was walking away from the remainder of a nearly $3 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers.”
Improving the eventual health outcomes of young athletes, while retaining the lessons of teamwork and discipline that football provides, lies between subjecting 5-year-olds to brain injury-inducing hits and banning the sport entirely. Playing flag football (instead of tackle) until the age of 14 is the most immediate and substantive rule we can implement to make the game safer. It’s an especially promising initiative because so many well-known football lifers advocate holding off on tackle play until high school. Jim Harbaugh, who was head coach of the San Francisco 49ers during my time on the team, believes in waiting ― and nobody loves football more than Harbaugh.
Let’s not allow our differing views on football to play out like our current political climate of “us” and “them.” Let’s not politicize the health of youth athletes and the human brain. We can’t wait an entire generation for a perverse science experiment on children’s brains to intuit the results thousands of hits have on their bodies. We are all on the same team, and we need to act like it if we want to come up with any kind of viable solution.
Chris Borland was an All-American linebacker and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year at the University of Wisconsin. He led the San Francisco 49ers in tackles as a rookie before retiring from the NFL due to brain injury concerns.