Chris Borland, a star rookie linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, has announced his retirement from the NFL. He’s 24. He’s the fourth NFL player to retire in the past two weeks for reasons other than age, present injury or skill diminishment leading to lack of appeal to NFL franchises. More directly than was the case with Patrick Willis, 32, Jake Locker, 27 and Jason Worilds, 27, Borland said that fear of the long-term repercussions of playing football motivated his decision, which is one reason Borland’s announcement in particular has prompted so much coverage. There’s no way we can yet say that this represents a trend. But the level of attention the Borland announcement is receiving – including lots of very supportive statements from current NFL players – and the anxious and defensive response of the NFL to the announcement (see Zirin’s discussion here) highlight yet again the striking paradox that is football today – at the very moment at which football has reached an historic peak in popularity, its future has never been cloudier (and here’s an interesting series of testimonials from some retired players about whether they would do it again).
There is much we don’t know about causality, about what kinds of safety measures might manifestly improve the long-term health prospects of players, how many kids today will opt to play other sports and so on. What we do know – really stupid arguments when we see them.
At Deadspin yesterday, Albert Burneko dismantled Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, who deployed the standard nonsensical arguments in order to pooh-pooh the risks of a dangerous activity: that other activities are unsafe, too. Therefore, anyone who whines about the dangers of playing football is part of the “anti-football agenda.” In response to Florio rattling off a series of pursuits that can also be dangerous – riding a motorcycle without a helmet, jumping out of airplanes, working as police officers or firefighters and so on – Burneko writes:
Once again: the types of concussive and sub-concussive blows that lead to long-term brain damage are a risk of the other pursuits Florio cites. In football, those blows are the job description. If riding a motorcycle without a helmet causes you to damage your brain, that’s because you fucked it up, or at least because something went wrong; if playing football causes you to damage your brain, that’s because you did it right. Even policework and firefighting aren’t good analogues. A police officer or firefighter might put himself in harm’s way, but getting shot or burned isn’t part of the job; it’s a thing that might happen if the job goes wrong. Ramming yourself into other people at speeds comparable to those seen in car accidents is football. Even Mike Florio is not enough of an imbecile to miss this distinction. Which is beside the point, because no one, anywhere, is saying, “People should stop playing football, and start riding motorcycles without helmets.”
Let’s call this the additive property of risk. If you smoke and I don’t, driving doesn’t become more of a dangerous activity for me than it does for you. That’s because risks of these sorts don’t work by substitution, they work by addition. Yes, we all engage in varying degrees of risky behavior. But if you engage in more risky behaviors, you are taking on more risk. That’s not the most important point of the debate about safety in football. It’s just the one that anyone with a brain should readily understand.
Speaking of brainless, Cowherd’s opening rant yesterday about Borland’s retirement was one for the ages. After acknowledging that football would have to change and that Borland was, of course, within his rights to make the decision he did, Cowherd decided that the real story here was the group of people he identified as the BMW-driving “football haters,” the college professors who send their kids to prep schools and, get this, vacation on Turks and Cacos. Let me speak for all academics who are troubled by the dangers inherent in football – most of my friends send their kids to public schools; I think I know one person who drives a BMW (That person is neither a professor nor a football hater). And I’ve never known anyone to vacation on Turks and Cacos. Cowherd insisted that those who worry about how dangerous football is “look down on it” and on the players themselves. Prove it, dude. Name one person who has criticized the NFL and its handling of safety concerns who has bashed the players themselves. Is Dave Zirin a Beamer-driving player-hater? Is Patrick Hruby? What about Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru? Or Cowherd’s colleague, Bob Ley, who devotes meaningful attention to this issue? What about all the doctors and researchers investigating CTE and related neurological risks? Can Cowherd point to a single statement of player-hating from Dr. Ann McKee, who’s now essentially devoting her life to trying to make life better for future players?
Alright, so Colin’s engaged in a bit of moronic and entirely misplaced stereotyping. This wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last. Who cares. The real problem was Colin’s frankly nauseating attempt to wrap himself in the flag of populism and to paint himself as an ally of the working man. In Cowherd’s telling, this imaginary group of football haters looks down upon coal miners, commercial fishermen, cops and firefighters – real men – who do hard, risky work that the rest of us don’t want to do. In other words, according to Cowherd, if you think football is perilously dangerous to play, or might be, you hate coal miners and regard their work as dishonorable.
Unfair? No more so than the swill he was spewing yesterday. Two more things to take into account when considering whether Cowherd’s concern for the well-being of football players and the working man more generally is genuine: 1) Cowherd derided a lawsuit filed by retired NFL players last year over the league’s irresponsible medical practices. After all, players suffering through chronic and severe pain are just like consumers buying shampoo – therefore, it’s on them – not their doctors – to know what will and won’t compromise their health in the long run. 2) Cowherd has also attacked unionization of college football players, in a particularly ill-informed way. If the working man is willing to bear whatever suffering their occupations and their fate require, Cowherd’s happy to attack imaginary opponents on their behalf. But when they actually try to stand up for themselves, not so much. Update: this has been circulating in timelines among commie-pinko FB friends of mine: