Sports media, and news media in general, was abuzz this week over the decision of a young man to retire from football . . . at the age of 24. Chris Borland, a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, announced that he is hanging up his cleats and heading another direction. He explained that he had looked carefully at the data regarding head impact and trauma, and that the numbers regarding CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), early dementia, memory loss, and depression are pretty alarming. For him the risk wasn’t worth the reward.
Borland was scheduled to make $504,000 this coming season, not that much by NFL standards, but he most certainly was headed toward making much more than that in the near future. Drafted in the third round out of Wisconsin last year, he caught the notice of the football world when he filled in for an injured Patrick Willis and played like a human missile, consistently unleashing havoc on opponents throughout the second half of last season. In fact, even with less than a full season of playing he led the 49ers in tackles. With Willis recently retiring because of his physical status, 49er fans were comforted by the fact that they had Borland to step in and fill that void. Borland’s announcement to the contrary hit SF Bay Area fans particularly hard.
Talking heads of the sports world went nuts with Borland’s announcement. ESPN covered it as one of their major news stories. On a personal level, most commentators felt that Borland had the right to choose as he saw fit regarding his football career, although they were incredulous at his ability to walk away from the money and the fame he was in the process of receiving. The real story, though, was Borland’s decision and its effect on the NFL. Would Borland, for instance, be the first of many to walk away from the violent sport? Some commentators felt that the answer to that question was yes, and that Borland’s decision literally marked the beginning of the end for football as we know it. Not immediately, but eventually. The following Sports Illustrated headline reflects the concern.
With Chris Borland deciding risk not worth reward, questions linger for NFL
Chris Borland’s choice took the sports world by surprise, yet it is completely consistent with the principles of choice theory. Given that choice theory’s contention is that 1) all behavior is purposeful and need-satisfying, and that 2) people behave in a way that best meets their needs at any given moment, Borland’s decision is understandable and, many would say, sensible.
On the January 22, 2013, blog I posted – Give Me Victory or Give Me Death – I wrote about athletes who are willing to risk injury and death in the pursuit of fame. Elite athletes from many different sports must contend with the temptation to enhance their performance through unfair or illegal means. The post especially looked at the sport of cycling and the way in which serious sanctions and penalties did not dissuade elite cyclists (the most famous being Lance Armstrong) from using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). From a choice theory perspective, the post argued that while their decision to use PEDs was wrong according to the rules, it was explainable based on the basic needs and quality world of the cyclists within the context of how the sport was then governed.
If I am going to comment on a low-point in sports – the PED cycling dilemma – and the out-of-control athletes seeking to gain and maintain a winning advantage as an example of choice theory’s explanation of human behavior, I figure I should also be on the lookout for what I believe to be a high-point in sports – that being Chris Borland’s thoughtful decision to retire from football – and a completely in-control athlete as an example of choice theory as well.
The sports world doesn’t know what to do with the Borland decision. Most don’t get it at all – “he’s a quitter” or “ wuss” some Twittered. (Anyone who saw him play could not intelligently use his name and wuss in the same sentence.) Some get it, but shake their heads none-the-less, unable to fully get how a young man could walk away from fame and fortune. For Borland it wasn’t all that complicated. (Choice theory has a way of making things less complicated.) In his own words, “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health. From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
We are “inside-out” creatures. “Outside-in” punishments didn’t keep cyclists from cheating, nor did “outside-in” fortune and fame keep Borland on the playing field.
“Everything we do – good or bad, effective or ineffective, painful or pleasurable, crazy or sane, sick or well, drunk or sober – is to satisfy powerful forces within ourselves.” William Glasser