When rookie standout Chris Borland shocked us with his retirement from the San Francisco 49ers and the NFL yesterday, there were tons of emotions flowing on social media. Most folks had finally got to a place of acceptance, and even optimism, after last week's retirement of fellow inside linebacker Patrick Willis. Borland would simply plug in and replace Willis as a perennial Pro Bowler, you see.
Now that folks have got over the shock of this news, it seems many have moved on to finding a way to blame the 49ers, and, of course, Jed York. This off-season has been an unmitigated disaster, with seemingly every decision -- by both the team and its players -- compounding our frustrations.
The question that has come up now is if the 49ers would or should go after Borland's signing bonus. Borland received a signing bonus of $617,436 on his rookie contract. Having played just one of that four-year deal, the 49ers could conceivably go after a prorated amount of $463,077, and there is already some speculation they might do that.
Oscar and I have some agreements and disagreements about the situation, so we present them below.
Suggesting the 49ers "go after" signing bonus money is where the hypothalamus starts churning, and people's anger toward York and the team begins to rise again. We see terms like "go after," and we associate that negatively.
I'm likely in the minority on this topic, but I have absolutely no problem with the team attempting to recover a portion of the bonus they gave to an employee who just walked away on his own terms. Yes, Borland made a decision that I support and respect. We do not own these athletes, and they owe us nothing. But he breached the terms of his contract, and I don't see a good reason to reward him for doing so.
There could be more details to come out. Perhaps Borland had more health issues than we know about. Perhaps he was given serious medical advice to consider not playing anymore, and head trauma was a platform he chose to support. I don't know. But until (if) that information is presented to me, I have no problem with the potential decision to legally and rightfully recoup his prorated bonus against the team.
Let's not forget, amidst all of our anger, it was only four months ago that Marcus Lattimore decided to walk away from the game as well. Despite never playing a single down, the team supported his decision to retire after giving rehab everything he had. And, they didn't ask for a single penny of his $300,000 signing bonus back. The same Jed York that everyone wants to call classless, was heralded as a class act. Four months ago.
But this is a completely different situation. Borland made a decision, in what we believe to be relative good health, for himself. The 49ers have every right to make their own decision for themselves as well.
On the other hand, while I would not have a problem with the team going after the bonus, I'm not sure that my answer to the question of if they should would be yes. While allowing Borland to keep the money may not do much to return the shine to the team's reputation, the harm done from taking it back will just be another punch to their already extremely blackened eye.
In isolation, I wouldn't have a problem with them recouping the money. In fact, fundamentally, I would normally believe they should. However, it's probably worth the peanuts -- in NFL money -- to elevate the perception your fan base has of you during this frustrating time.
Going after Chris Borland's signing bonus would confirm that the 49ers front office has no clue what "class" actually means.
This is a young man that is making an incredibly tough decision. A decision that players like Gary Plummer, who is now dealing with dementia as a result of recurring hits to his head during his playing days, didn't have the information to make. Yes, some players are more than happy to assume the risk. In the case in which a player decides to hang them up, though, it would be absolute folly to go after the signing bonus.
First, it would look petty. We're talking about a 3rd round pick's rookie contract. According to Spotrac, Borland's signing bonus was $617,436. Remember than a signing bonus, unlike rolling guarantees or roster/workout bonuses, are paid to players up front. If the 49ers went after the remaining bonus they would be trying to collect $463,077. That's .32% of the overall cap. POINT THREE TWO PERCENT.
Why would the team act differently with Borland than they did with Glenn Coffee or Marcus Lattimore? In Coffee's case, he retired to pursue a different calling. But Lattimore is analogous because he retired due to health issues related to his knee. Lattimore, because he was on the NFL list his entire career, technically the team didn't even have to pay Lattimore's base salary. If the team is willing to let these players keep their bonuses they shouldn't go after Borland's.
Second, it would impact player recruiting by definitively imprinting the "cheap" label on the front office. John York left his terrible mark on the team when he was running the day to day operations. The chief example of the cheap-o 49ers was handing guests gatorade cups with 8 ounces of water because water bottles were too much of an expense. The 49ers need all of the positive publicity they can get, and going after Borland's signing bonus would be a giant bat signal to the league: We will go after every penny if you try and make a decision about your life and well-being. Players like Torrey Smith come to the 49ers because they are recruited by other players. If you create an atmosphere where people don't recruit on your behalf by doing things like going after every penny whenever you can, players run away.
For a team flush with new stadium cash flow with some serious PR problems going after Borland's bonus would be the absolute wrong thing to do. Just because the team can do something, doesn't mean they should. Sometimes life is about more than cap savings and lost bonuses. Sometimes, it's about making the right decision, or as Jed would put it, the classy decision. For the 49ers, the right decision is to let Chris Borland keep his bonus.