The San Francisco 49ers wild offseason featured a handful of retirements, the most surprising of which was probably linebacker Chris Borland. The soon-to-be second year linebacker announced in March that he had decided to walk away from the NFL due to concerns about head trauma.
The announcement came via ESPN's Outside the Lines, and that announcement was part of what is now a broader article about Borland's decision. Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, two of the best investigative reporters on ESPN's payroll, followed Borland around for five months and put together an all-encompassing article that published on Thursday.
Even if you don't want to talk about Chris Borland's retirement, the article is a fascinating read on several levels. I think the title is overblown a bit. I do think head trauma is an issue that will impact football, but the headline is a bit sensationalized. However, the article itself contains a lot of details about Borland's time in college and with the 49ers, and the lead up to his retirement that are worth a read. I recommend giving the whole thing a read, but I wanted to pull out parts of the story I found particularly interesting.
The article opens detailing the news that Borland was actually asked to submit to a drug test this past April. He had retired the previous month, but the NFL continues to drug-test athletes after they leave the NFL. Cornerback Brandon Browner dealt with this a while back due to a stint in the CFL. He was asked to submit a urine sample to the NFL while he was playing in the CFL. He did not submit it, and when he returned to the NFL, they counted that as a failed drug test.
Borland talked about deciding whether or not the test was really "random". Although he is not coming back to the NFL, he submitted to the test to avoid the potential PR battle that would result if he skipped it. The NFL could claim it as a failed drug test, and Borland is highly skeptical of the league's purposes in asking for his urine. He took the test, and hired a private firm to test it independently. Both the private firm and NFL tests came back negative.
And of course, there is discussion about his retirement decision. There has been a narrative that Borland knew he was going to retire back during training camp after he had a concussion. Based on this timeline, it seems like he started considering it, but research in the offseason did in fact help him finalize his decision. He talks about contacting Outside the Lines to put him in touch with the researchers involved in League of Denial. He spoke with one of them, Dr. Robert Stern, and his discussions with Dr. Stern crystalized the decision to retire.
The article also details the timeline of formally announcing his retirement. According to Borland, he emailed the 49ers on Friday, March 13, announcing his retirement. He included a potential press release for the announcement, "then reaffirmed his intentions in conversations with 49ers officials."
Instead of announcing Borland's retirement, the team sent him a bill -- an unsubtle reminder that he'd have to return most of his $617,436 signing bonus if he followed through. That Monday, Borland ... made the announcement himself to Outside the Lines.
Borland has begun re-paying the signing bonus, but is paying it off in installments. He paid part of it using his performance bonus pay check from the previous season. According to the article, he took home $550,000 after taxes and a donation to his charitable trust. He still owes a little over $300,000 on the signing bonus, and it sounds like he will pay it off over the next two years.
A lot of people have said he will turn this publicity into financial opportunities, whether it be a book, movie or whatever. While plenty will remain skeptical, this comes off as a guy who is not looking to cash in. People will believe what they want, but he says he has turned down numerous endorsement opportunities, and it provides specific examples where he has wanted to make sure he was not being used for promotional purposes. Obviously getting a write-up in ESPN is a big deal, but he is going through a unique situation. I'm glad we are able to get a little more insight into his thought process, and how he is handling this situation.
There were extensive parts of the article that were about player health in general, and had nothing to do with concussions. Head trauma is a big concern, but the use of pain killers, particularly Toradol is a significant concern. There is a lawsuit surrounding the pain killer and the issues it causes.
Borland talked about discovering Toradol his freshman year at Wisconsin, and how important it was for players to get back on the field. The FDA warns it should be used sparingly for severe acute pain. Borland said there were stretches where he might use it every other game. Additionally teammates would use it even more frequently. That leads to a discussion about one of Borland's teammates, linebacker Mike Taylor. It gets graphic into the things he went through to get on the field.
Wisconsin was asked about the Toradol and injury issues, and this was included in the article:
Wisconsin declined to comment specifically on Borland or Taylor but said in a statement that injured athletes are allowed back on the field only after medical staff deem them "fit to return." The school added, "The limited usage of Toradol is administered by our team physicians and closely monitored."
I'd bet a lot of money that final line is a lot of BS.
The article reads in part like a timeline, and discusses when Borland first joined the 49ers. That led to this section on the rookie orientation program. It has nothing to do with concussions or on-field health, but it goes to establish more about the culture of the league. I suppose this is not entirely shocking to learn, but it is still something.