The Borland effect: Powerful decision shows that if football is to end, fans must stop watching 

click to enlarge Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland knew he was going to retire — before he played his first and only season in the NFL — due to concerns about his health. - JULIO CORTEZ/2014 AP FILE PHOTO
  • Julio Cortez/2014 AP file photo
  • Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland knew he was going to retire — before he played his first and only season in the NFL — due to concerns about his health.

Please understand the disconnect: A football fan will not stop watching football just because Chris Borland, bless his 24-year-old soul, prioritized a long, healthy life over fame, money and a potential vegetable existence. If people have continued to view games in record numbers after Aaron Hernandez was jailed on murder charges, Ray Rice was suspended for cold-cocking his future wife, Junior Seau committed suicide and Michael Vick ravaged dogs, then they'll continue to overlook concussions, brain disease, neurological breakdowns and the brutality of a sport that further creeps us out with every new ream of disturbing news.

Seems nothing can taint the thrill of your beloved team beating a divisional rival in overtime, or the rush of wearing a Colin Kaepernick jersey and meeting friends for Sunday drinking, or the joy of seeing one's fantasy roster rescued by a breakout player. For all the monumental social issues in its corner offices, the NFL hasn't yet approached even the first stage of consumer withdrawal. On the field, and on HD big-screens everywhere, football at the pro and college levels never has been hotter, cooler and more in demand. The same network that broke the story of Borland's early retirement, ESPN, literally owns and operates the cash machine that is college football, also the NFL's feeder system.

Hypocrisy, double standards — the ongoing divide between basic human sensibilities and irresistible entertainment jollies, wrapped around a multibillion-dollar industry fueled by media companies and gambling interests, is what complicates any sober assessment of football's future in America. The alarmists cannot disregard the facts: The NFL accounted for 45 of the 50 most-watched TV shows last fall, culminating with an all-time high of 114.4 million viewers for a memorable Super Bowl that, come to think of it, still awaits a ruling on whether the champion New England Patriots illegally inflated their balls. The college game enjoyed rousing popularity, too, in its first season of an expanded playoff system that was stoked by $7.3 billion in network money.

At some point, though, the bubbling lava beneath the surface is doomed to burn the exposed feet of Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league's fat-cat owners. Just as baseball is being rejected by young folk who don't like the slow pace and old-granddad traditions, the same progressive thinkers who rock the San Francisco and Silicon Valley tech scenes, for instance, are realizing football is a death march that shouldn't be part of any sane, sophisticated culture. As long as skulls are exposed and knocked around in a violent game, head trauma will continue to weaken men and prematurely kill them. As a society, we've never had more thoughtful introspection about priorities and perspective than here in the 21st century, and it only makes sense that protecting the brain, heart and spine — not sure what took so long — should be paramount concerns in sport and life.

What the Borland decision did was draw more attention to a quality-of-life ideal. The raging issue now is whether football, even with staggering TV numbers and profits, will begin to wane because the talent pool gradually will decrease and undermine the game. Parents everywhere have seen the two televised interviews with Borland, so wise and mature for his age, as he explained how he sent his own family a letter during the 49ers' preseason expressing appreciation for years of support — and that he was embarking on his final year of football. Parents have seen him hand back most of his signing bonus and forfeit millions in a contract. Parents have heard him tell the brotherly reporting team of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru:

"I mean, if it could potentially kill you — I know that's a drastic way to put it, but it is a possibility — that really puts it in perspective to me. To me, it just wasn't what I wanted to do. I can relate from the outside looking in that it wouldn't make sense to a lot of people, and I've had close friends who have said, 'Well, why don't you just play one more year, it's a lot more money, you probably won't get hurt.' I just don't want to get in a situation where I'm negotiating my health for money. Who knows how many hits is too many?"

And all those parents are listening intently now, thinking and deciding like never before. Borland's announcement came amid a recent flurry of players who've left the sport — and millions on the table — to live good, strong lives. No franchise has been more impacted by this exodus than the 49ers, who also watched another elite linebacker, Patrick Willis, retire in his prime, albeit to foot issues. The ripple effect, in Northern California and beyond, involves whether 11-year-old Joey, regardless of how much he wants to play football, should be pointed instead to basketball courts, soccer fields, baseball diamonds and other safer venues. It's quite stupid for any parent to allow a child to put on a football helmet and, if he's really good, spend anywhere from 15 to 30 years getting his brains beaten in. It never was the brightest idea, steering a talented young athlete toward football while knowing the NFL generally offers a shorter career span and more limited financial window than baseball and basketball. Such was the impact of Borland's verdict. He reminded us how foolish it all is.

By midcentury, perhaps, maybe football dies. Maybe it will carry on without tackling and equipment, like flag football. Maybe "Madden 53" will be played without "Bams!" and "Pows!" Maybe all the concussion lawsuits will wipe out the NFL. Maybe Borland and others in his footsteps will have a seminal effect.

But for now, too many Americans are immersed in too many Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays to slow down the corporate hubris-and-greed train.

I thank Chris Borland for saving his brain.

Now, football fans need to start using theirs.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at

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Jay Mariotti

Jay Mariotti

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at Read his website at
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