Football, in all its life-and-death savagery, has carried on after Chris Borland, hardly giving him a thought. But then, who can think coherently when so many brains are concussed and battered? Just this week, the new coach of Borland’s former team, the 49ers, has spent too much time breaking up practice fights between teammates, clashes that are as stupid as they are counterproductive.
“Yeah, we handed out a couple citations,” said Jim Tomsula, describing himself as a traffic cop. “It’s the dog days of camp, and it gets heated here and there. I mean, they’re in the hotel together, they’re everywhere together. That’s why a lot of people break camp right about now. I’m trying to extend it a little bit further. It’s just what I believe. I wouldn’t make much of any of that.”
Sure, downplay anything that is senselessly barbaric, such as 300-pound defensive end Tank Carradine attacking 205-pound receiver Quinton Patton on the sideline in an inexcusable act of teammate-on-teammate violence. Such is the NFL mantra — downplay, downplay — amid a health-and-safety crisis that will darken and demonize the sport as long as it exists. Also this week, we’ve seen more brawls break out in two-team scrimmages, prompting coaches to speak out about the senseless, dangerous melees dominating training camps.
“Coaches that believe in it, they need to get new jobs,” said Bruce Arians, coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
But when the league’s very own television network glorifies these skirmishes as grist for an August news cycle, why wouldn’t an airtime-seeking player want to create his own MMA-like scene for prime-time viewing? “For as much as we harp about avoiding it, the [NFL] Network puts it on 10 times,” pointed out Sean Payton, coach of the New Orleans Saints. “Clearly, when you put a team on television like (HBO’s) “Hard Knocks” and then practice with someone else — we’ve seen that formula two years in a row, so that is nothing new.”
It’s called sensationalizing brutality, the institutional plague that led Borland to voluntarily end his promising career at 24. His landmark decision resonated through a nation that realized a young linebacking star, on the verge of making multiple millions for 10 or 12 years, preferred to protect his long-term mental well-being over fame and fortune. It was another staggering perception blow for the NFL, already reeling from a succession of suicides and post-concussion horror stories which have caused researchers to link football violence to CTE — chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a degenerative disease. Borland didn’t want to go through life with depression, dementia, memory loss, all so he could tackle Marshawn Lynch in the open field in 2015.
So he retired, in mid-March, following an impressive rookie season with the 49ers. And immediately, as ESPN’s investigative team of brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada reported Thursday in their ongoing journal of Borland’s life after football, it became disturbingly evident that the football establishment would treat Borland not as a forward-thinker making a monumental personal decision — but as a potential enemy and public-relations threat to the sport’s popularity.
Football hasn’t learned from Chris Borland.
No, it apparently wants to smear him into the ground, helmet first.
“I don’t really trust the NFL,” he told the Fainarus.
Why should he? It’s troubling enough that the 49ers, amid an unprecedented offseason exodus of players, responded coldly to his retirement discussions by sending him what smacked of an intimidation notice — he would have to pay back most of his $617,436 signing bonus if he quit. When he asked the team to consider a press release he had prepared, Borland was ignored, according to the story, forcing him to announce his retirement on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” program. When I asked the 49ers that week how to reach Borland, I was told to contact his agent. The organization missed a wonderful opportunity to be at the forefront of a new football mentality — embracing a player’s desire to retire early and improve his odds for a longer, higher-quality life. At the very least, CEO Jed York could have done this weeks later, after offensive tackle Anthony Davis retired at 25 for similar reasons.
Yet what awaited Borland in April, he says, was an ever icier circumstance. The NFL demanded he take a drug test, which the league claims it does for all recently retired players so they don’t retire, do drugs, then return without having to pass a test. At first, he considered not taking the test, then thought otherwise. “I figured if I said no, people would think I’m on drugs,” he said, realizing such thinking “would ruin my life.” So he submitted a urine sample and hired an independent firm to take a second sample. He said he passed both tests. “I don’t want to be a conspiracy theorist,” he said.
Can anyone blame him, though? If the NFL’s we’ve-got-this stance on concussions is comparable to the one-time arrogance of Big Tobacco about cigarettes and cancer links, then Borland, in the league’s view, is a whistle-blower. He hasn’t at all disappeared from the public eye, as the league surely wishes. Rather, he appears on national TV shows, speaks to large groups and has offered his brain to researchers for scanning purposes. He says he doesn’t want to fight the NFL.
“But there are former players who are struggling. And certainly there are kids that are gonna play in the future. So if my story can help them in any way, I’d like to find a way to do that,” he said in the ESPN story.
What is his message? “Dehumanizing sounds so extreme, but when you’re fighting for a football at the bottom of the pile, it is kind of dehumanizing,” Borland said. “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.”
And: “Well, the combine is about as much as a human being can be treated like a piece of meat in 21st-century America. You walk onstage in your underwear. You walk room to room, where sometimes five doctors are pulling on different parts of your body while you’re in your underwear and talking about you like you’re not there. So, yeah. I mean, it’s like cattle. They’re in the cattle business. It’s how well your body can perform.”
He also confesses in the article to rampant use of Toradol, a painkiller that has become a constant in NFL and college locker rooms. Borland had three shoulder surgeries at Wisconsin and, unwisely, played through the pain. With a Big Ten title on the line, he suited up one Saturday. “I remember that morning I was thinking, ‘This is f—ing stupid. What am I doing?’” he said. “They shot Toradol in my ass. And I remember covering up my knee with bandages, just so I couldn’t see blood. The first half was shaky for me. If you watch the game film, it’s like, ‘This dude should not be playing.’
“After the game, I finally took everything off, and there was just blood dripping down. The hair was matted down because of all the compression on it, the tape, the glue, and there was still blood coming down. I remember the coaches coming by, going, ‘Great game! Can’t believe what you just did!’”
Weeks later, the Badgers played Stanford in the Rose Bowl. “I’m just laying on the table before the game, buck naked, just taking shots of s— I don’t even know,” Borland said. “Taking pills, putting straps on, putting Icy Hot on. People were coming in and looking at me like I’m a f—ing robot, like I’m dead.”
When the 49ers drafted him in the third round, Borland already had pondered retirement. He says he has no regrets about his decision and is happy in his new life, enjoying an Ireland vacation as his ex-teammates reported to camp. He still owes the team more than $463,000 of his signing bonus, paying the first installment with a 2014 performance bonus. According to the story, he pays $800 a month for a Silicon Valley rental unit and lives like a college student.
Also this week in the league he abandoned, a former starting quarterback, Erik Kramer, tried to commit suicide in a suburban Los Angeles motel room. His injuries are non-life-threatening, according to reports. “He is a very amazing man, a beautiful soul, but he has suffered depression since he was with the Bears,” Kramer’s ex-wife, Marshawn Kramer, told NBC News.
“This is brain injury.”
This is why Chris Borland escaped.