The retirements of Jason Worilds, Jake Locker and Patrick Willis took the NFL by surprise, but didn’t require the league to issue a statement in defense of the game of football. The retirement of Chris Borland was different.
Borland, the 49ers linebacker whose retirement at age 23 has taken everyone by surprise, felt like a more alarming incident to the NFL. And so the league has issued a statement on the matter.
The statement from Jeff Miller, the NFL senior V.P. of health and safety policy, began by showing respect for Borland before turning to a defense of the game.
“We respect Chris Borland’s decision and wish him all the best,” the statement said. “Playing any sport is a personal decision.
“By any measure, football has never been safer and we continue to make progress with rule changes, safer tackling techniques at all levels of football, and better equipment, protocols and medical care for players. Concussions in NFL games were down 25 percent last year, continuing a three-year downward trend. We continue to make significant investments in independent research to advance the science and understanding of these issues. We are seeing a growing culture of safety. Everyone involved in the game knows that there is more work to do and player safety will continue to be our top priority.”
The NFL’s claim that football has never been safer will be met with some skepticism: Players are indisputably bigger, stronger and faster than they were decades ago, so doesn’t that mean the hits they take must be harder than they were decades ago?
The flip side is that players are getting better medical treatment today, and more rules are in place to protect players from the most dangerous kinds of hits. The league’s data showing a decline in concussions is significant.
But Borland’s retirement has to worry the NFL. If it didn’t, the NFL wouldn’t have felt the need to respond.