The Hidden Factor: A Post-Chris Borland NFL Draft

While the NFL is raking in the cash, a storm is on the horizon. Players are becoming aware of just how dangerous the game they play is to their long-term health. David R. McCullough lays out why Chris Borland’s decision to retire early could cause problems for the NFL.

Analysts are busy making lists and checking their reservations at the Mobile Holiday Inn Express for the Senior Bowl, because draft season has begun. With just the Bowl games remaining on the calendar, it will soon be time to close the new film book and to begin looking at that oddest of events, the NFL Combine. But this year, evaluators have a new off-field factor they don’t, can’t, and won’t know about their favored prospects – who saw Concussion? Who read about Chris Borland?

The “will-he or won’t-he” deadline for the 2016 NFL Draft is January 15th. Either you’re in or you’re out, with potentially millions of dollars on the line. Every scout has a tale about the guy who went back to school and had a terrible senior season, like Matt Barkley, who was considered a potential top five pick by some NFL front offices and ended up being a 4th round pick after returning to school. Or got hurt like Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and cost himself millions in the difference between a first round contract and an undrafted one.

But there is a real risk that putting hours of study and cross-checking into a prospect only to find out, that like Borland, the player has decided to pursue a career where the risk of brain damage is lower than 89%.  

brain-scan-2Borland, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers, was a breakout star in his rookie season out of Wisconsin, ably stepping in when teammates went down injured. But as chronicled by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru in their ESPN story, Borland was increasingly concerned about his own long-term health. He ultimately decided to walk away last spring in a story that rocked the football world – how could a young, healthy player give it up?

Borland might have been the first but he will not be the last player to walk away from the NFL over concussion concerns. Most players that scouts will be grading are going to keep playing. But as Emily Kaplan points out – it is one thing to be told about the danger of concussions. It is something else to see it on the big screen. Seeing Concussion was an emotional experience for some ex-NFL players. Will college prospects feel the same way?

Dr. Bennett Omalu’s tale, as related by Jeanne Marie Luskas in this 2009 GQ article, has been turned into a major motion picture. Arguably the biggest movie star in the world, Will Smith, is playing Omalu. Among the “characters” credited are Mike Webster, Andre Waters, and Dave Duerson – all of whom had post-mortem evidence of CTE, the condition Omalu discovered. The same condition that the 89% had – a calculation that doesn’t yet include NFL legend Frank Gifford.helmet-brain-

I have been shocked to see commercials for Concussion airing during NFL advertising breaks. After all, the NFL did everything it possibly could for as long as it possibly could to deny that concussions were a problem. Now, Roger Goodell (played by Luke Wilson) is going to be part of a big-time Hollywood film that puts him, and the owners who employ him, on blast.

We are now into an era where any prospect might choose the Borland Road. This era will feature players who are told, explicitly, “playing will give you brain damage” and where parents will know the dangers of traumatic brain injury before letting their children play.

This is a new, nearly-unknowable factor for teams and scouts to consider when evaluating players. Players receiving a free education may choose, like Borland, to make an informed choice between the likelihood of brain damage and using their degree. It presents another challenge for scouts: what does the player know about concussions and how much does it matter?

One of the traits successful teams look for in players is a ‘love of the game’. Borland, by his own admission, loved the game. It wasn’t until he became aware of the long-term risk that he chose to retire and leave the game behind.

Which promising NFL prospect is going to see the new Will Smith movie about concussions in football? How many of those players will have their eyes opened? Scouts might do well to stake out movie theaters near college campuses for the next few weeks.

Follow David on Twitter @ITP_davemc.

David R. McCullough is the Editor-in-Chief of Inside the Pylon. He also writes about the topics shaping the sport, examines the coaches and players, ruminates on football’s past, and explores the controversial issues facing the game.

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