Borland situation highlights delicate balance NFL must strike

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The concussion crisis forced the NFL to acknowledge the problem and take meaningful steps to address it in 2009, primarily for legal and political reasons.  Now that everyone knows that playing football can result in long-term cognitive problems and diseases like Alzheimer’s and ALS, the league faces no real liability for failing to warn players about the risks of concussions.

But that doesn’t mean the NFL’s work on the problem has ended.  Apart from efforts to ensure that players with concussions don’t return to practice or games without being cleared by an independent neurologist and to protect specifically vulnerable players from blows to the head, the NFL needs to strive for ways to limit or to remove certain blows to the head from the game.

Hall of Famer John Madden suggested several years ago the replacement of the three-point stance with a two-point stance.  Madden, who scoffed last year at the NFL’s Head’s Up program, surely has other ideas for making the game even safer.

So how far will the NFL go to make the game safer?  How safe can it be?  Will the NFL risk making changes that affect the fundamental nature or (perhaps more importantly) appearance of football games on a 60-inch flatscreen?

From a business standpoint, the NFL needs to balance the risk of losing players and alienating those who regard football in its current form as barbaric against the risk of alienating football fans who fear that the game will become less enjoyable if it’s made so safe that the game suffers. It’s possible that nothing short of removing pads and helmets and making the game into an old-timer’s game of flag football will turn off football fans.  Sure, they’ll huff and puff — but will they blow the house down by doing something else with their time and money on Sunday afternoons?

If the NFL goes too far to make the game as safe as it can be, someone inevitably will form a football league that plays old-school, big-hitting football, employing players who know the risks and gladly embrace them.  In our society, plenty of risks are taken for much less money, or for no money at all.  If enough people are willing to play a violent brand of football and enough people are willing to patronize it, the most intense forms of football will thrive, possibly as competition to the NFL.

The NFL needs to constantly ask where it sees itself in the spectrum that has no-contact at one end and full-contact at the other.  Over the past six years, the game has evolved to something with less contact.  Whether the NFL can afford to remove more contact — and whether it can afford not to — becomes one of the most important questions for a league that has been far more reactive than proactive on matters that directly affect its long-term success.

50 responses to “Borland situation highlights delicate balance NFL must strike

  1. Greg Aiello writes great copy.

    Greg it is simple.

    The NFL needs to:

    Come clean;
    Pay for the damage done to players;
    Put real doctors on the sidelines;
    Stop trying to screw around with the science;
    Stop selling football is good for 5 year-olds;
    offer guaranteed contracts.

  2. retiring after one year? call it cowardly, call it foolish, but ill call it smart.
    the hungry hounds on the saints have been known to collect bounty$ on offense and defense.
    borland was NOT safe, anybody could get it

  3. PS: Can you quantify how many guys will get CTE, ALS, Alzheimer’s, Dementia and how many guys will just have brain damage.

    PPS: Since you are line to the league – Since everybody knows the risks why isn’t the NFL paying for CTE going forward and brain damage as part of the concussion settlement.

  4. I’m sorry but football is a tough game. And there is clearly trade off for playing … its why they get paid so well. An individual making a choice is not now nor ever will be an issue for the NFL. Life has trade offs. If you want to be a high end CEO, expect your family life to suck due to the hours you have to put in. Its that way in everything everyone does. i don’t see why the nfl is different. Firefighters die all the time does the NYFD have to look at how they do things ?? No, its up to the individual doing th ejob to decide if the risk is worth it to them….

    I for one would have zero problem with my kid playing football. Now i would be careful to watch whats going on and i would make sure the coaches are teaching proper technique. But if thats what he wanted to do and he understood the risk reward then i would be fine with that.

  5. I want players to sign the wavier and I wish the best for you and your family. Because I want to violent, hard hitting, nasty football league. I’ll actually go to stadiums to see it.

  6. “Will the NFL risk making changes that affect the fundamental nature or (perhaps more importantly) appearance of football games on a 60-inch flatscreen?”

    They’ve already made numerous changes to that effect the fundamental nature of the game, including some based on concussions. Why would they care any more about doing so over this ?

  7. I have no reason to be mad at Borland as long as he pays back the prorated portion of his signing bonus. The team would have eatin it if had been cut now Borland has to pay it back cause he resigned.

  8. I have no reason to be mad at Borland as long as he pays back the prorated portion of his signing bonus. The team would have eatin it if had been cut now Borland has to pay it back cause he quit.

  9. This will end the NFL down the road, between lawsuits and parents pushing their kids toward different , safer, cheaper to play sports. Look what boxing has become. A cartoon.

  10. Heads up is a farce. It can help prevent certain compression neck / spinal cord injuries (sort of), but it will do nothing at all for concussions. Neither will jiggering with the helmet. If you repeatedly bash your head into something, you’re going to do long-term damage. The angle or manner in which you bash is irrelevant. It’s not complicated.

  11. One time thing…typical overreaction. Truck driving can be hazardous to your health, when a truck driver quits do they question the whole industry or just find a new one? I don’t see this guy as brave or seeing precedent that’s going to ruin the NFL.. he’s just a linebacker who called it quits early. That’s it. No bigger story here.

  12. Here www go with the Neanderthal comments about how the concussion issue isn’t a real issue and America needs to just toughen up and this is FOOTBALL not badmitton…blah blah blah. We may love the game, but if its killing people maybe its not the game that is the problem, but us (because in the end we are the ones making Goodell and the rest of the NFL owners filthy rich).

  13. The game been garbage since Goodell has been there. I already stopped watching the National Flag Football League. I hate this offense QB era stuff. The league will never get better so Goodell should’ve just shut the league down at it’s peak than turn it into MLB first.

  14. The concussion problem revolves around the fact that the helmet, the piece of equipment designed to protect the head from injury, has instead become the most dangerous piece of equipment on the field.

    Most football helmets are made from Cycolac, a ridiculously hard ABS polymer that is totally unnecessary to have on a football field. Football helmets need to be manufactured from a softer, more flexible plastic such as polyethylene (PE). I am convinced this would sharply reduce the concussions, stingers and other injuries caused by too-hard helmets while still providing the necessary protection a football player’s head needs.

    As an aside, the sport which DOES need football-style helmets is ice hockey. While hockey players rarely, if ever, have helmet-to-helmet collisions, they do have contact with a bunch of other things on the ice which have a great deal of injury potential, such as skates, sticks, pucks, the boards, the ice and the glass. Hockey helmets are a joke when it comes to protecting players from these elements. I, for one, am sick and tired of seeing hockey players seriously injured by totally avoidable contact with these objects.

  15. 1) Nobody is forced to play pro football.
    2) Players should sign a waiver promising not to sue the NFL or any team
    3) Bring back football the way it was in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

  16. The NFL and its media partners looks at MMA and its success and find no reason to not give the people what they want, VIOLENCE. The old adage, if it bleeds it leads, is still in place. If they want knock off the excessive hits, they would get rid of the helmets and padding. More padding, and better helmets simply mean you can hit the guy on the other team harder. This is not Moore’s law.

  17. Linebackers and Strong Safeties, Fullbacks. Their positions in today’s game are crazy dangerous at the NFL level. Taking on blockers and tacklers at full speed with head on collisions. At least lineman are often braced for their contact, although you had guys like Mike Webster who liked to use his helmet as a weapon.

  18. if a guy wants to quit for what ever reason, thats his business and no one else.
    if im the 49ers im a little ticked that he announces it a week into free agency, when he told his family before last season he would only be playing for one year, he could have let the 49ers know a month ago. did he know he was leaving after one year when he signed his 4 year contract?thats the part that bugs me. not his choice to quit, its his timing that is questionable

  19. I can’t remember a 3rd round pick leaving the NFL after one year generating so much ink…Must be a slow day for the media trolls…He (Borland) decided to leave his job, he has to return a certain portion of his bonus. Move on to some other top story this is dead.
    ps..Borland owes fans nothing.

  20. @ jbloggs13 says:

    “Stop selling football is good for 5 year-olds”

    You don’t know what you’re talking about here. Football is fun for 5 year olds. There is extremely low risk of injury to a 5 year old. They simply don’t play with enough speed or force at that age to cause any serious injuries. The head injury doesn’t come into play until around puberty – especially in the 12-14 year old age where some kids have hit puberty and some have not.

    “offer guaranteed contracts.”

    Totally agree with this one. Guaranteed contracts should be mandatory. There is risk to players and they should have some guarantees.

  21. This is not a NFL problem. This is a 49er problem. The players have witnessed Jim Harbaugh pull a Bobby Petrino and cowardly tuck his tail back to college, and are following his example by quitting.

  22. I said it was over 10 years ago. I was right, it is just taking a bit longer than expected.

    NFL is going the way of Pro Boxing.

  23. Losing players to baseball and basketball in the peewees. Now they are losing players off the top of the heap too.

    Football will be like a civil war reenactment within 10 years. No real danger or fun.

  24. Goodell has terribly mismanaged the entire concussion situation. Where Tag used to fork over 10 mil a year and tell the punchdrunk guys to be quiet, Goodell took an intractable stance, telling them no one would get a dime unless they could prove they had brain damage – which he figured they couldn’t do. He was wrong.

    Duerson and Easterling and several others were just dying to show him. Once the owners lost a billion bucks via lawsuit, the suicides stopped. It wasn’t CTE that caused the suicides, it was Roger Goodell. He might as well have pulled the trigger himself.

  25. The fact that his family, and therefore Borland knew this might be his only season, puts this story in a whole different light. If he had suddenly come to this revelation after a season of abuse I would have no problem with it.

    Now it appears to me like he intended to cash in for one year from the out set. The damage that does to the team as far as roster planning and using a draft pick is significant. He also linked his teammates.

    Again, this is predicated on the idea that he knew he was likely only going to play one year. A few hundred grand right out of college ain’t bad.

  26. Soldiers make 5% of the minimum salary and face far more risks. Not downplaying risks of football but let’s please put this in perspective

  27. As long as the NFL is a multi billion dollar business, there will always be talented young men willing to trade their bodies and their health for a hefty payday and fame.


    First and foremost the NFL is a business (and a very lucrative one at that). They ceased being a sport first a very long time ago.

    Borland’s decision will change nothing.

  28. This won’t be a popular idea but the NFL could learn a few lessons from Rugby, a sport with plenty of tackling, far less padding and a lot fewer concussions than Football.

    Rugby focuses on the “wrap tackle” You can’t just launch yourself at an opponent and smash into them, you actually have to wrap them up. This used to be considered good fundamental tackling in Football as well, but it was never mandated.

    Rugby players wrap when they tackle, be it high or low, and they are trained to get their heads to the side when they do it. The results, not only less injuries but more effective tackling (a number of college and NFL teams have consulted with Rugby coaches on tackling techniques).

  29. For every Borland there are 1,000 guys willing to run through a brick wall (without a helmet) to play in the NFL…

  30. It’s really simple guys, if your worried about injury don’t play. No one is making these guys play football, they do it for the rush and those big contracts. You can’t claim to not know anymore and frankly since the beginning the mentality is I will play no matter what.

  31. At least Borland made his decision during off season instead of walking out of camp or walking off the team during the regular season.

    Everything about this decision looks like it was carefully considered. Like the customary two-week notice, he bowed out before his team finished with their FA activities and before they finalized their plans for the draft. So now they can plan accordingly.

    Good luck to him.

  32. I get sick of all the NFL and Goodell bashing. They run a sports league to make money and they are damned good at it. It’s not a charity. They owe you nothing, just like you owe them nothing. If you like the product, watch it. If not, don’t.

  33. I saw the phrase “NFL must strike” and I got a spasm in my left-click finger because I had to read as soon as possible.

    PFT got me!

  34. Worthless Goodell will have us watching the National Flag League in about 5 years!!! The game is a violent sport you DON’T have to play if you’re worried about getting hurt!!!

  35. The players themselves are somewhat responsible for this mess, also. How many times do you see a defender trying to blow another player up and whiffing on a tackle instead of just wrapping a guy up?

    There’s a time and place for the big hit, but guys are just going for the big hit far too often, and more often that not they either hurt someone or look stupid and whiff. I’d prefer to see more textbook tackles, personally. Performing textbook tackles is respecting the other player, yourself, and the league as a whole. And yet it’s becoming a lost art.

  36. The NFL is not about safety! It is not about worrying over concussions; or broken legs for that matter. The NFL is the modern day version of the games in the Roman Coliseum. NFL players are the gladiators and we represent the mob of Rome! If you have been to Rome, you see the comparison immediately!

    The game hasa been slowed down because of replay. We dress the QB up in a dress! We shackle the defense while we never call holding unless the Patriots are loosing. The player’s union and the league need to come to the reality that the NFL is a contemporary blood sport that entertains millions. We can’t get enough of it. The big hits the dirty hits. The bravery, the toughness; it is about young kids fantasizing about playing in the league one day. It is about the parents fantasizing that they are part of the team! None of us want to be members of some girlie-man team! We want to be part of the Ditka’s Bears or the The old Steelers!

    Professional athletes are going to have to buy insurance and the league is going to have to create contracts that protect them from injury lawsuits! The fans will not compromise – the NFL is lucky that there is no competition for their product.

  37. he was banged up coming out of college add that to his rookie season he had and he really had no choice…yea he played good but look at the beating he took its only matter time that his college injuries end up worse in the NFL…he could of told the team that drafted him( 49ers) that he might only play one season though…I think over all he knew he was slightly over ratted and couldnt have same stats back to back just being real..but good for him he quit before he got hurt worse.

  38. I listen to Fran Tarkenton on the radio and he sounds really sharp. I see Tom Jackson and Mike Ditka on TV and they also sound sharp. Tarkenton was a running QB and probably had his bell rung 2 or 3 times a game, and he had a long career. Jackson and Ditka were hard nosed players who got rung and did a lot of bell ringing too. I also know men their age who never played football, but who have brain problems. There are a lot of ex-players who are older and doing fine. I played football for many years (running back) growing up, but the only times I got dinged in the head were when I wrecked on my bike or fell to the pavement playing basketball. Soccer players all have brain trauma from all those head shots. Everytime I breath I’m taking pollution into my lungs. Maybe we should all quit breathing. We should definitely all quit driving. I think there are cancer causing agents at my workplace, so I should quit my job too. Better yet, maybe I should sue my boss. This computer screen is hurting my eyes so I might sue PFT.

  39. It is a bit disheartening to know that so much attention is paid to this player. We have fireman who have complained about long-term illnesses from fires they extinguish, but rarely does this get the press it deserves. While it is fine for someone to make a value proposition when it comes to risk/reward, his actions do not amount to much of anything. In reality he is lucky that he may have other options to choose a less dangerous career. I imagine there are many people who would love this option, firemen, police, construction workers, oil rig workers, truck drives etc.

  40. Compare this story to the wife beater stories that took up so much attention last fall. Which is the bigger problem for the NFL?

  41. The human nature of competition is to put yourself in some degree of harms way. All we are talking about is degrees.

    Civilized society will always struggle with where the acceptable “line” of that primal urge to compete and prove your toughness vs. risk (both short term and long term).

    The truth is, throughout history, pushing the limits of what man can do despite their physical limitations has proven time and again to have benefits.

    Do we want to take ALL risk out of life? Is that the “civilized” thing to do? How many “sports” will fall by the waste side? Soccer, football, boxing, MMA, motorcross, car racing, Xgames, extreme sports, skiing, bobsledding…

    Where does it end and WHY? Is the brain completely off-limits? Is THAT the line? And who determines that line? PFT? The government? Lawyers? Moms?

    Only time will tell, but I’m not sure we’re a better society by wrapping all our children in bubble wrap and protecting them from every risk.

  42. Players now are bigger, faster, stronger and don’t use the same techniques from years ago because…helmets are better now. Or so they are told.

    As long as a helmet has a hard shell, and the momentum of two players colliding results in the sudden stoppage of the brain, I doubt any kind of padding in the helmet is going to reduce the concussion risk greatly. Also, because helmets now are somewhat better than 20 years ago, players feel invincible and play as such.

    If you put leather helmets back on them with no face mask then concussions would drop considerably. But that’s not realistic.

    So, unless the NFL wants players to wear huge, soft helmets and look like a bunch of Gizmo’s or bobble heads running around the field then we are stuck with penalties and constant rule changes.

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