National Commentary

The NFL’s Borland Rejects Football

Far, far more significant than this week’s resignation of 33-year-old Rep. Aaron Schock, a Republican freshman egotist from the U.S. Congress, is the resignation of Chris Borland, an even younger 24-year-old National Football League player. Both are described as the youngest ever to resign from their respective professions.

The two stories were reported side-by-side on the front page of Wednesday’s Washington Post, but that’s where any remote notion of equivalency ends. The Post report was actually another brave column by Thomas Boswell, who has written before about the heightened dangers to the brains of participants in football.

Described as “one of the NFL’s brightest young stars,” Borland made it public on Tuesday that his decision to quit football after just one year in the pros was out of concern for health risks associated with head injuries.

The data about head injuries and football is stunning, even though the most insidious impact of the sport on the brain cannot be actually measured until a former player is dead. That’s because there is currently no test that can indicate the extent of the most serious form of injury, “chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE),” damages the brain, from slowing or impairing all the functions a brain is good for to creating horrible suffering (leading to suicides, as in the case of NFL star Junior Seau at age 43) and complete dementia later in life.

But in cases where bodies of former players were exhumed and autopsies performed to detect the presence of CTE, the results have been staggering. The numbers indicate an astonishingly high percentage. The tortured Seau killed himself with a shot to the heart in order to preserve his brain for medical study, a final, tragic act of public service by a man always known for his kindness off the field.

This evidence has been mounting in recent years, and officials of the multi-billion dollar business that is professional football have been doing everything from stonewalling to outright lying about it. Now, in NFL-supported pre-high school youth football programs, neurologists are very concerned for the added susceptibility to serious injuries of constant head traumas, even when the tell-tale indicators of an actual concussion are not present.

If somebody wants to argue that there’s a more important organ (if you want to call it that) than the brain, let them bring that one on. The brain is a very vulnerable organ, which is why in the evolution of mankind, it has been housed in a very hard and relatively unyielding protective cranium, or skull. But one consequence of that is the heightened vulnerability of the brain when it comes to absorbing direct blows to the skull.

When the head is struck, the brain, which kind of sloshes around inside the skull is slammed up against it and bruised. Doing that over and over again can introduce permanent injury.

Now, this outcome can result from other contact sports, often in boxing and ice hockey. Boxing’s role as a major national sport has been considerably diminished by the unavoidable evidence of brain damage, but in no other sport beside football are repeated head traumas in the actual core playing out of the game, in practices all week long and in the games on the weekends.

But football – from high school where it is almost a religion (“Friday Night Lights”) in some parts of the country, to college where huge stadiums are filled all across the U.S. every week for half a year, to professional, where the athletes compete by the combination of factors, speed and mass, that inflict the maximum blow on each other – is a big time business.

More than just a business, it has replaced the comparatively leisurely sport of baseball as the national passtime, or obsession. In the past half century, it has become part and parcel of a macho, militaristic culture that is seeming to careen off the rails.

Choose your poison: the ways in which this culture numbs brains – alcohol, drugs, television situation comedies, porn, sports – serves to allow a ruling elite to abuse 99 percent of the public to their own gain.

Alas, maybe football will just go on.