Its revenue figures are staggering and its television audience is always enormous. But there may be no better testament to the National Football League's dominant position in America today than this: We're in the heart of the league's off-season, with the first game of 2015 still months and months away, yet the biggest sports story of the week was still about the NFL. As if that's not proof enough, the story is about a little-known linebacker from a team that didn't make the playoffs last year and his decision not to play.
But as Chris Borland — the 24-year-old member of the San Francisco 49ers who recently announced he was retiring because of concerns about the game's safety — has found out, that's how much the NFL matters. And because he cited fears of chronic traumatic encephalopathy as a reason to quit, Borland's also found out how worried the NFL's top brass is over the prospect of a future where most athletes don't play football, due to its propensity to turn the brains of its players into mush. Needless to say, the NFL doesn't issue a passive-aggressive public statement every time a player decides to retire.
Earlier this week, Salon spoke over the phone with Dave Zirin, sports writer for the Nation and author of "Brazil's Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy," to get his take on what Borland's retirement could mean for the NFL and its future. Our conversation touches on Borland's decision, the league's response, and the worries about the future that keep league Commissioner Roger Goodell up at night. It can be found below and has been edited for clarity and length.
Is Borland's retirement a big deal? Or are we overreacting to what's really an anomaly?
There's a quote by James Reston where he says reporters are much better at covering revolution than evolution; and this is a great example of that. Anybody who thinks that the NFL is about to collapse tomorrow or that this augurs a great wave of players leaving the sport... Obviously, that's not what's happening. What Chris Borland did is a signpost within a larger evolution that has so clearly been taking place over a number of years in which people are waking up to the corrosive physical and psychological effects of playing tackle football. There's a battle, and the battle isn't between the Malcolm Gladwells who want to ban the sport and the old-timey, Mike Ditka guys who are trying to save the sport; the real battle is between people who want full transparency for parents about what this sport actually is and people trying to obscure that transparency.
I see Chris Borland as somebody whose retirement was really a political act in the name of that transparency, and I see the response by the NFL as a great example of how that transparency is obscured. All that stuff about how kids are learning how to tackle better, throwing out that 25 percent figure that concussions are down, saying things like, the game has never been safer, and then getting various doctors saying it's more dangerous to ride a bicycle — that's the counter-transparency push coming in the other direction. People have the right to informed consent, whether you're talking about smoking weed, whether it's having a drink of alcohol or a cigarette. Neither I nor many other people are for banning those kinds of activities but we think people have a right to know what damage they're doing to their bodies before they make these choices.
Has the NFL community's response to his retirement been uniform? Or has the conversation within football circles been multifaceted?
It's definitely been varied, and this is partly a function of social media, where anybody who has the impulse to say something can say it. I think it revealed that there's very deep diversity of opinion inside the NFL and even amongst elite NFL reporters. You can't look at it as the gatekeepers and the rebels or something like that; I think the way the camps divide, to put it very broadly, is people who might love football but also acknowledge the hell it puts your body through. You see it when they talk, they carry the weight of people they know in the game who've committed suicide or ended up homeless or addicted to pills or are among the 78 percent of players who end up broke. They carry that weight with them, and they say, you know what? This is an individual choice, and they respect Chris Borland's decision to make that choice.
Then you have this other camp of people who are absolutely acting like their No. 1 job is to be Frank Luntz and figure out how to massage this message so that no parents out there feel at all concerned about sending their kids out to play youth football or Pop Warner because the goal, above all else, is to protect the shield. You even saw a big difference in how the San Francisco 49ers responded to Borland's retirement and how the NFL responded. The 49ers kept it very classy and said, he's a really good guy and we're sorry to lose him but we wish him the best; but the NFL had to pivot to this full-throated dissent.
But I'll tell you where it gets really disgusting: You get the NFL commentary version of the chickenhawks ... from the Bush administration. I hate sports/war comparisons but it feels very apt here, where you have folks who don't put their brains on the line or on the field — they're not the ones out there taking these risks — and yet they've become very, very wealthy because of the incredible success of the National Football League so their first response is to deride Chris Borland for what he's doing.
I noticed that. Some very big names in the NFL's media universe were critical. I don't really get it, to be honest; why do they care if he plays football or not?
I communicated with Chris Borland this morning; we exchanged emails. He was truly, truly stunned that this was as big a story as it was. To him, it was like, second-year player decides not to play football because he's concerned about concussions— why is this a big story? Everybody is concerned about concussions. Especially since you have had other young players leave the game this off-season, he thought he was going to be one of a group that was doing this. The difference between Chris and these other folks is that these other folks had already suffered real injury before their 30th birthday. With Chris, it also has to do with the situation in San Francisco, where he really had a shot at superstardom. The 49ers linebacker core was depleted, he had a very promising rookie year, and they were going to put him in a position to be a Pro-Bowler and a star but he decided that he did not want that.
The thing I kept thinking about was Dave Chappelle, because when Dave Chappelle walked away from tens of millions of dollars from Comedy Central everybody was saying he was completely crazy, like, literally mentally imbalanced. A friend of mine said to me, we always wonder in this country why everybody's all about the money but when somebody shows he's not all about the money he gets mocked for it. I was thinking about Dave Chappelle with Borland, because isn't this what we always say we want for people? How often have you heard people about the fact that schoolteachers and firefighters aren't role models but athletes are? Why do we put so much worth on them just because they perform for millions of dollars? Here's somebody who walks away from that money and that celebrity— which is like the nobility of the 21st century— and the response has been, what's wrong with him?
I credit everyone in the NFL community whose response hasn't been just to say that it's an individual choice to ask what the hell he's doing. There's a third camp of people who've said, wow, that took a lot of guts and that was actually kind of cool.
How, and how much, do you think Borland's relatively comfortable upbringing influenced his decision?
I think [Borland's middle-class background] definitely plays into this because, first of all, you don't have somebody in Chris Borland who's got an entire family or entire community looking at him as if he's the person who got his lottery ticket punched and now has a responsibility to drag everybody out of poverty. He didn't have that burden. The other side, too, is that he's somebody who got his degree from the University of Wisconsin; he's very serious about politics and history and about trying to apply what he's learned.
For somebody who has a history degree, I could see why it would be very difficult to stay in the NFL. If you know the history of this league, you know that, yeah, in the present tense you're going to be famous and you're going to make bank but the future, odds are, will not be bright for you. It's the remarkable fact about this league. The way he put it to me is that when you play in the NFL you sacrifice your right to middle age; you go straight from young to old. That's what Chris Borland chose to avoid.
You wrote in one of your recent posts that the way class plays into the future of football is what should really worry Goodell and the other folks running the league. How so?
This is going to get more difficult for the NFL. Right now, it's certainly true that a ton of NFL players come from situations of very dire poverty. There is also a group of NFL players who come from more middle-class backgrounds. But if the Chris Borlands and the Russell Wilsons of the world choose not to play, or if their parents choose not to have them play, you're going to have a league drawn more and more from people who feel a sense of desperation about playing football.
As the sport becomes more and more exclusive, with billion-dollar stadiums and higher ticket prices, you run the risk of this thing becoming — if it's not there already — just straight-up gladiators. People who have a lot of disposable income can go to the games to watch people who grew up with no disposable income bashing their brains together because they're the only group in society that's going to be willing to put themselves in that situation.
I don't think that's where we are yet, but that's the ... existential fear of Roger Goodell and the NFL.