Niners linebacker Chris Borland’s decision to retire after just one NFL season was as shocking as it was smart because he wanted to protect his mental health. But it was not a path that many others will follow.
Borland is a white man with a good education and solid family background, which gives him the opportunity to seek out different paths. The majority of NFL players now are black and few have had good educations. (An obvious exception is Russell Wilson, who was a teammate of Borland’s at Wisconsin.)
There are many black men who are well-educated and have risen to the top in their professions. One of them is serving his second term as president.
But the overwhelming goal for most young black men is to play professionally, either in the NBA or the NFL. There are relatively few positions in either sport, compared to the number seeking them, so for most, that’s a false opportunity.
One time when I was talking to former 49ers star running back Delvin Williams, he showed me a poster of the McDonald’s 100 best high school football players when he was a senior. He was the only one of the 100 who ever played in the NFL.
Yet, that elusive goal is still there for many young black men, few of whom ever have an educational background to fall back on when they fail to reach their goal. The big football schools are happy to put them into classes, which serve only to keep them eligible to play.
How long can we tolerate this hypocrisy? On the collegiate level, there seems no end. The NCAA seems interested only in making sure athletes don’t profit from their fame.
On the professional level, there may be changes sooner. The example of boxing may be relevant.
Boxing always attracted those at the lower levels of society. Originally, it was the poor white men from the Irish and Italian communities. but as those communities became more prosperous, the young men sought other jobs. Boxing became increasingly a sport of black men and Latino men, the latest group of immigrants.
And now, there are still minor events in areas like ours, but for the major events, boxing is a freak show, with bouts held in Las Vegas, where nothing is real. When I was a young adult, I followed the TV fights and I knew several men who did the same. We’d talk about them the next day. Now, I know nobody who follows boxing.
Football will not follow the same path because it has a much broader appeal and, as of this time, is making too much money to fail. But it is exactly money that will eventually cause it to fail because the NFL will be paying huge amounts to the families of those retired players who are suffering or dying from brain damage. Nothing is forever. Nobody watching Joe Louis demolish Max Schmeling could ever have thought boxing would become what it is.
It will take longer with football, but it will come as a direct result of the damage done to brains of players who weren’t able to walk away from the sport as Chris Borland has done. Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.Chris BorlandGlenn DickeySan Francisco 49ers