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Time For NFL To Fess Up And Pay Up About Risks Of Football

Tony Avelar
AP Photo
Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch (24) runs against San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker Chris Borland (50) during game in Santa Clara, Calif., on Nov. 27, 2014. Borland announced his retirement from the NFL this week after just one season.

The shocking decision this week of San Francisco 49ers rookie linebacker Chris Borland to retire from the game over health concerns has shaken up the NFL.

KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel says it's time for the league to come clean about the dangers of the sport.

'I'm Done'

Chris Borland had a successful rookie year, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin. He played in the same division as the Seahawks - the NFC West.

"He came on in midseason and became one of the best players on the 49ers defense and, really,  as a linebacker in the NFL," Art said. "And then, at age 24, he said 'I'm done.'

"He's walking away from up to $4 million, which would have been the value of his rookie contract. He got paid for the first year."

'Risks Too Great'

Borland said the risks were too great for the reward, citing concerns about the damage the sport can inflict on the brains of players.

"He did the research," Art said. "He talked to former players and medical professionals who have a great understanding of the consequences of sports concussions.

"And he came to the conclusion that he can't go forward. And it's shaken the entire NFL from the commissioner on down to the 53rd player."

Seahawks Reaction

Seahawks players reacted to Borland's announcement in a story by the Seattle Times.

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson played with Borland one year at Wisconsin and faced him against the 49ers. On Twitter, Wilson sent Borland a message of support.

Consequences For Players' Families

Art says it's hard on families when football players know the risks but still continue to play the game.

"That's the hidden issue here," he said. "I understand that young men are free to take risky occupations. But it's the consequence of family life that, I think, really strikes home.

"I've seen movies such as 'League of Denial'and 'The United States of Football' that talk to families of football players who are really adversely impacted by this decision."

NFL Needs To 'Be Honest' About Dangers

"I don't think there is an acknowledgment by the NFL of the serious consequences because it looks bad and it discourages people," Art said.

"At some point the NFL is going to have to be honest with people that this is a dangerous occupation. And the NFL is going to have to compensate people for that danger."

NFL Settlement With Former Players A 'Callous Move'

Prior to the start of the 2013 season, they settled with the former players who were suing the league for $795 million over 20 years to pay for their healthcare and all the associated costs.

"That was a very cynical and callous move by the NFL," Art said. "They didn't do anything for current and future players. And also they didn't admit liability.

Future Of NFL In 'Hands Of The Mothers Of America'

Art says the NFL owes an honest and candid explanation to its players and the public about the consequences of the sport.

"They hid it for 20 years," he said. "They need to address the people who hold the future of the NFL in their hands. And that, to me, is the mothers of America.

"I think the mothers and the fathers of America need to hear honest declarations from the NFL about the dangers."

'Like Big Tobacco'

Art says the NFL needs to do what big tobacco did.

"In 1998, big tobacco paid $206 billion to the 50 states to compensate all of their Medicare and Medicaid costs associated with smoking," he said. "I think the NFL is in a similar position of having to pay for the consequences of the safety of their sport."

Fallout From Borland Decision

So, what happens next? Art isn't sure.

"I think it's real easy to say 'the sky is falling.' But I don't think it is, necessarily," he said. "There will always be young men who will play this sport. The money is too good.

"I think it's possible we're going to see a greatly reduced number of people from middle-class families and upper-middle-class families playing this sport because they can afford to walk away.

"There's going to be a lot of young men from impoverished backgrounds who can't afford to say that. And I understand that.

"I just think everybody needs to be honest about the seriousness of this issue."


You can find Art Thiel's work at Sportspress Northwestand

Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.
Art Thiel is a co-founder and writer for the rising sports website Sportspress Northwest. In 2003 Thiel wrote the definitive book about the Seattle Mariners, “Out of Left Field,” which became a regional bestseller. In 2009, along with Steve Rudman and KJR 950 afternoon host Mike Gastineau, Thiel authored “The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists,” a cross between and Mad Magazine that has become mandatory reading for any sports fan who has an indoor bathroom.