It still feels odd typing the phrase "former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland." Yet here we are again, conversing about football's future because one of its brightest stars examined the road ahead and didn't like the risk.
After one year in the NFL, Borland, 24, told ESPN's Outside the Lines on Monday that he was retiring from football because of "concerns about the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma."
Despite the popular narrative, Borland's decision doesn't mark the end of football. However, Jeff Borland, Chris' father, told Ken Belson of The New York Times that it could be the "beginning of the beginning."
That could mean several things. Perhaps parents will still be more reluctant to let their kids play football. Maybe more players follow Borland's lead and pre-emptively call it a career. The statistics will be impossible to predict, though.
What it means to me is that change is coming in terms of how athletes are treated, especially at the college level.
College football has a future just as the NFL has a future, but it will evolve. The trickle-down effect of Borland's announcement revolves around empathy. As Dan Diamond of Forbes.com wrote, there's a newfound acceptance among fans that these athletes aren't gladiators, objects used solely for our entertainment. They're people with very real needs.
And college athletes need as much assistance as possible to prepare for their bodies' inevitable breakdown.
We're not talking about a new type of helmet with impact cushioning, limiting tackling during practices or placing third-party doctors on every sideline. Those things are important, but they're also immediate solutions for what we know to be a long-term issue.
The easiest solution is to, quite literally, throw money at the problem. A side story of the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit over the use of a college athletes' name/image/likeness is that compensation is a tangible form of relief. If college football players leave school with $20,000 in their pocket out of a trust fund, that's money that could be used to pay medical bills down the line.
This isn't about players being paid in the value of an education. In fact, that's irrelevant when it comes to player health. The value of an education isn't in an undergraduate degree, anyway; it's what the individual learns from their time in college, academically and socially. Those two concepts aren't necessarily the same. Furthermore, neither guarantees that someone can afford medical expenses because they took repeated blows to the head over a number of years.
But along those lines, Borland's story should make colleges at least take a good, hard look at how they're guiding student-athletes. Former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett tweeted a series of thoughts about this very subject. (If you have the time, Clarett's whole timeline is worth a read.)
In short, Borland felt like he had options outside of football. Not everyone else is so fortunate.
This may sound like trying to shove the toothpaste back in the tube, but self-evaluation about the role of academic and social opportunity in college athletics is crucial. When we talk about athletes "choosing" to play football, and thus assuming all of its risks, we often neglect to note that it shares a blurred line with necessity. Football isn't everyone's one and only path to a better life, but it is for some.
What are high schools and colleges alike doing to ensure that players have as many options as possible? That's the biggest question. Depending on the answer, the socio-economic makeup of future rosters could shift.
We'll still have football, though—just with a different look. Depending on how we value players now, we can dictate whether that will be a positive change. If a player feels like he has options financially and professionally, he may still retire sooner than usual. But it could also mean that more players are willing to give the sport a chance.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.