By Aaron Leibowitz
(This piece was originally published at The Cauldron: https://medium.com/the-cauldron/real-men-quit-football-ad8cf88ea0f5)
There is perhaps no greater killer in human history than male pride. Just about every war can be traced to a bunch of men who felt angry about their masculinity being questioned. And just about every act of violence has roots in man’s desire to assert his superiority over other man (and women).
Football, however, is just a game, not a war. But it’s a sword fight in its own right.
That’s why, when San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland announced Monday that he is retiring from the National Football League after just one season due to concerns about the long-term effects of head trauma, it was an act that required tremendous courage.
“I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland, who is 24 and was one of the NFL’s best defensive rookies this past season, told ESPN’sOutside the Lines. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
In training camp, Borland sustained what he believed to be his third concussion. He played through it. He needed to make the team.
“I just thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? Is this how I’m going to live my adult life, banging my head, especially with what I’ve learned and know about the dangers?’” he said.
Borland began to study the relationship between football and neurodegenerative disease, consulting concussion experts and former players in the process. His research pointed to the connections between brain damage sustained playing football and issues such as depression and memory loss — connections the NFL has gone to great lengths to hide.
Learning the facts, Borland said, made his decision “simple.” But there’s nothing simple about it.
Real men don’t quit, or so they say. Real men finish what they’ve started, or so goes the popular wisdom. Real men appreciate the opportunities they have. Real men suck it up, accept the risks, and continue to play for God and country and honor and glory and Goodell.
Allow football writers Mike Florio and Adam Schefter to explain:
The idea that walking away from the money and fame of professional football might actually be a prudent decision is scary for those whose lives are defined by the game. But by swallowing his pride, Borland may be saving his own life.
Does this mark a tipping point for the NFL? In the past week alone, four players age 30 or younger have retired, though only Borland explicitly cited concussion concerns. Ex-NFL wide receiver Sidney Rice, who retired last year at the age of 27, recently told CBS News he did so for safety reasons.
“I wanted to be able to function,” he said.
Another telling sign that Borland’s decision was the right one for him — and one that doesn’t deserve scorn or criticism? Other NFL players seem to respect and understand him:
Borland deserves to be celebrated. At the same time, those who continue to pursue NFL careers should not be shamed. For many, the decision to play pro football — a prerequisite of which is the decision to forego a quality education and play uncompensated in college— is a function of economic necessity. Not every player can afford to quit, and that’s part of the problem.
Still, by retiring, Borland is sending a message to future players that it’s okay to walk away. If a player chooses to continue playing despite being fully aware of the risks and despite feeling financially secure, then that’s his decision alone. Borland is saying that pride should never be what gets in the way of a full and happy life.
Football is dying the same slow death as patriarchy. It may take a while, but the changes are happening before our eyes.