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The NFL as it is Known is Not Sustainable

The retirement of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland is shocking news. Borland was a stunning surprise in the absence of Niners' linebackers Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman, and he was only about to be going into his second year. Borland's quotes on his retirement are chilling, but understandable, and one has to wonder if more NFL players are going to follow suit.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

This is not an article about the New Orleans Saints.  I sat down with every intention of working on an article welcoming new(ish) Saints players Danell Ellerbe and C.J. Spiller.  However, when I got the news of the retirement of Chris Borland, I had to look into why.  When I figured out why, I realized that the NFL is facing a very, very serious problem that it has to address soon, else the NFL lose more promising more talent in the near future, whether it's to injury or early retirement.

As a barebones concept, the NFL is a strange thing.  Rich owners pay rich GMs to hire coaches and make young, freakish athletes rich.  Then, a bunch of fans curse the name of those freakish athletes until they retire and then pretend that they loved them all along.  If one follows the teams only, everything is fine.  The players play and the coaches coach.  It's only when people start to follow how the league handles things as an institution that the morality of the league becomes a little more questionable, to the point that it can be hard to even rationalize being a fan without actively ignoring the business side of the league.

I know that this sounds melodramatic and hyperbolic, but think about the league's stance towards head injuries.  On the surface, they seem to making all of the right moves.  They're penalizing plays in which players seem to be at risk (much to the dismay of fans that miss the days of Ryan Clark and Ed Reed launching themselves at Raven and Steeler receivers, respectively), and they're seemingly trying to limit the amount of head to head contact.  Unfortunately, if one digs a little deeper, the façade about safety starts to crumble.  If you haven't watched PBS's documentary League of Denial, then I highly recommend you do so.  It's free on PBS's Frontline website, and a truly fascinating look into why the NFL's concussion protocols and player safety rules are, for all intents and purposes, a front.

PBS also has a handy concussion tracker on the website in which the documentary can be found.  It breaks down concussions by not only year, but also position and team.  Now, since 2012, there has been a downward trend in the sheer quantity of concussions.  The league went from 171 concussions in 2012, to 152 in 2013, to 123 in 2014.  Here's  the interesting thing.  The NFL implemented its defenseless receiver rule as we know it in 2010.  The problem with the rule is that it is inherently subjective and dependent on the definition of a "football move" at the discretion of the official.

Without fail, plays in the secondary create the most concussions.  Players are moving at ridiculous speeds in open space, and we see hits like this or this. Yes, the second hit is in college but the point still stands.  In 2014, receivers suffered 15 cconcussions and corners suffered 24.  Safeties sat at 18, and linebackers were at 16.  Running backs came in next at 11.  In 2012, it was receivers that suffered a startling amount of concussions, at 29.  Corners has 26, and safeties had 19, while linebackers were down at 13.  The trend seems to be shifting away from receivers and more towards defensive players in the secondary, since receivers are now getting more protection.

Bear in mind, these numbers pertain only to reported head injuries in the NFL.  The league's concussion protocols, while improved, still have some room to finagle a player back into a game that, perhaps, isn't quite ready, such as Ben Roethlisberger in last season's Wild Card Game against the Baltimore Ravens.  It's not about whether or not Roethlisberger was concussed, it's about the almost literally 0 Effort that the Steelers put forth to find out.

Here is a look at the NFL's Concussion Protocol as it stood as recently as 2013, with an absolutely fantastic amount of fluff language for your perusal.  Here's just one snippet of the protocol, emphasis mine:

A player feeling normal one day after the game might pass cognitive testing and begin a light exercise program, intensify their exercise routine Wednesday, participate in non-contact aspects of practice Thursday and return to practice on Friday. But if a player has a history of concussions or isn't progressing as quickly as planned, the process moves accordingly.

Notice how much of that is bolded?  Everything in bold is up to the discretion of the team, language left intentionally vague so that teams and players ultimately have their say in how soon a player can come back after a concussion.  The players won't say they aren't fine, it's literally their livelihood at stake.  But a week is absolutely not enough time for a player to recover from a high-speed collision concussion, let alone 5 days if the player does elect to come back on Friday.

It's time to look at the player that inspired this article.  Chris Borland was a pleasant surprise for the 49ers in 2014.  He had 107 total tackles, 11 "stuffs" (the impediment of the running back at the line of scrimmage) and 2 interceptions filling in for the also now-retired Patrick Willis.  It would be so easy to make a joke about yet another Niners player leaving, but the fact is there's nothing funny about the context surrounding his departure.  Borland's retirement is the latest in a strain of bizarre ones, with Patrick Willis retiring due to an awakening, Jason Worilds of the Steelers retiring to become a Jehovah's Witness, and now Borland following suit.  However, Borland offered up absolutely no pretense about his retirement whatsoever; he simply didn't feel safe, as he told Outside The Lines: "I just honestly have 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 had a lot more to say on the matter, and it was even more poignant:

"I feel largely the same, as sharp as I've ever been. For me, it's wanting to be proactive.  I'm concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it's too late. ... There are a lot of unknowns. I can't claim that X will happen. I just want to live a long healthy life, and I don't want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise."

We might see a lot more NFL players subscribe to this idea of proactivity, and there's no reason that they shouldn't.  It only took one year for Borland to reassess the risks of playing in the NFL, and ultimately decide that what was very likely his lifelong dream wasn't worth shortening his life for.  Consider this: According to PBS's aforementioned Frontline piece, 76 of 79 deceased former NFL players' brain scans showed signs of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).  The reason that we don't hear about it is because until something dramatic (such as Junior Seau's suicide) occurs, there's no reason to think about it.  CTE is a disease that manifests itself in varying degrees of subtlety.  It could be a dropped memory here or a stagger while walking there.  Even scarier, CTE can only be definitively diagnosed posthumously.  In a study of 128 players with varying degrees of football experience (from high school to pro), 101 of them tested positive for CTE, this also according to Frontline's study.

The NFL's future is the part that's most at risk.  Look at any Pro & Con list for parents on whether or not they should allow their kids to play football.  Any list worth its salt will have the potential for head injuries listed as a Con, and parents are catching on.  In a poll conducted by the website Truth Revolt, half of Americans wouldn't let their kids play football, and only 17% of Americans predicted a growth in popularity for football over the next 20 years.  This number is, of course, skewed, as the NFL is very likely nearing the peak of its profit potential, but as more and more parents begin to shy away from letting their kids play the sport, it's very likely that the talent pool will begin to be diluted, and the quality of the sport will suffer.

The other issue that arises is that, outside of the defenseless receiver rule, only quarterbacks seem to be getting the attention that they need.  Being oftentimes the most high profile players on the field, it stands to reason that injuries to quarterbacks will be the most noticed.  If the league starts to lose marquee players such as Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers to injury, then it starts to lose revenue, so it makes sense to protect those players.  In League of Denial, former Niners QB Steve Young had this conversation with an interviewer.

Young (After being asked whether he'd let his kid play football): Well, would you let me have him play linebacker?  I don't know.  Quarterback?  Yeah, he can play quarterback.

Interviewer: There is going to be an awful lot of quarterbacks on that field.

Young: There is only one guy that can talk in the huddle, so it could be a real problem...

This conversation raises a serious concern.  As long as favoritism is shown to one position, it stands to reason that people are going to gravitate to that position.  Compound this with the lucrative contracts that quarterbacks currently receive in the NFL market, there's no reason why anyone would want to play anywhere else except that there's less competition there.  The NFL needs to address concussions at all positions somehow, rather than the ones they think people want to see.  Sure, you'll get the people complaining about "the good old days" when "players were players" and "it was a win if you murdered someone on the field (okay, no one said that, but still)," but there's no reason that nostalgia should trump safety.  That's irresponsible and indicative of a barbaric mentality that cannot stand in a civilized league, let alone a game.

The best thing that will come out of Borland's abrupt retirement is the general public will finally see how serious this issue is.  The issue with the Junior Seau situation was that it didn't have lasting effects for those outside of people close to him.  In no way shape or form is this to tarnish or mitigate the memory of Seau, what happened to him was tragic and mine and so many other people's hearts still go out to his loved ones, but people, especially more casual fans in the general public, move on.  If this becomes a trend and promising young talent continues to go the same route that Borland chose to, it will begin to open people's eyes and make them realize that this issue isn't going to go away.  That will ultimately affect the league's bottomline, and they'll need to do something to make the league safer than it is.

Football is a scary sport, and it has a scary premise.  It's extremely easy to forget that we, as fans, are even watching humans play.  With everyone going at comparable speeds, it's easier to forget just what those speeds are.  Players are finally starting to figure out that they have options.  In the latest of a series of seemingly crazy retirements, it's time to seriously examine the state of the league and see if more can't be done to make sure that participants are safe.  The NFL will, of course, never be obsolete.  It will always have fans and those that care for the game more than life itself.  There's nothing wrong with that, but priorities need to be set, from all standpoints.  Fans cannot stand for players endangering their overall livelihoods, and neither can the NFLPA.

This is no longer about the NFL saying the right things, they need to do them too.  They need to make sure that players get the support they need before, during, and especially after their careers.  Take the ability to put themselves back in games out of players' hands, and make sure that they're actually okay before putting them back in, rather than simply asking "how many fingers am I holding up."  Sufficiency is no longer the standard.  The league needs to go above and beyond what they're doing now to protect its athletes.  If they don't, Borland won't be the last player to retire the way that he did.  It only took him one year to figure out that what he was doing wasn't worth the risks associated with it.  And the worst thing to acknowledge as a fan is that he isn't wrong.  A broken leg can heal, but brain damage haunts players forever.