Ex-Badgers LB Borland on CTE, paying college players, possible return to football & more
Chris Borland knows he is a walking contradiction.
On the one hand, the former Wisconsin star linebacker is the guy who retired from the NFL months after being named to the All-Rookie team, worried about the future consequences of his health if he continued to play the sport. On the other, he has a great love for what football has provided for him and, yes, could one day see himself coaching the sport.
“It’s kind of a nightmare, welcome to my world,” Borland said with a chuckle. “It’s been a good exercise in patience.”
I recently had an opportunity to talk with Borland, who, along with his brothers, will be running in the Pat Tillman Foundation’s Pat’s Run in Tempe, Ariz., on behalf of After the Impact Fund (ATIF). Borland’s brothers are both in the military: Captain Joe Borland, US Army JAG Corps and Major John Borland, US Army currently instructing at West Point. Since ATIF facilitates custom treatment plans for veterans and athletes with traumatic brain injuries, it made sense for the Borland brothers to be involved.
But then again, Chris Borland has been involved in a lot since his football retirement, from furthering research for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) to helping draft a proposal to ban kids under 12 from playing tackle football (known as the Dave Duerson Act, which has made it to the Illinois House for a debate and vote).
When I talked with Borland last week, he was at the Conference of World Affairs in Boulder, Colo., where he was speaking on panels ranging from corruption in college to the NFL to casual sex. “They bring in 100 different speakers. Its nickname is the conference on everything conceivable,” Borland said. “They keep you busy and it’s never the same topic.”
In between his speaking engagements, I talked with Borland for nearly 30 minutes on a variety of topics. My intention was to write a feature on Borland. But he had so much to say and a ton of great information that I didn’t want to leave anything out. Thus, instead I’ve decided on a question and answer format. I hope you enjoy it and it is illuminating.
Q: How did you get involved with the After the Impact Fund? Did you go to your brothers and say this might up your alley or vice-versa?
A: After the Impact fund was launched last year by the same people who ran Gridiron Greats. I worked with Gridiron Greats the last two years and knew their executive director and coach (Mike) Ditka well. I thought it was perfect synergy with my brothers. It worked out perfectly because Pat’s Run was on the horizon and certainly there’s no one more emblematic of marrying football and military than Tillman. My brother Joe got back from Iraq just last month. Both of my brothers who are active duty army were willing and able. A lot of people who want to do good in this world getting together and getting it done.
Q: Do you see a correlation between what the military go through with post-traumatic stress disorder and football players with CTE?
A: That’s the brilliance of After the Impact’s approach. It’s been well-documented that there’s over 20 veteran suicides a day, we’re in the midst of the longest-running war in American history and 36 percent of the injuries of returning veterans are post-traumatic stress, there’s lots of traumatic brain injuries. And football, it’s different. No one would compare a game with war, but CTE is a huge issue in the population. So the insight and unique and active progression in pairing the groups is precisely because they have similar issues — not exactly the same — and they are similar groups of people. Servicemen and women are accustomed to being in a unit and having a singular purpose, and that transition into civilian life can be difficult. And similarly, football players have that same thing. Type A personalities, striving to achieve a goal and after your career is over, it’s not quite the disequilibrium veterans that face, but it’s rocky, the transition into quote unquote civilian life.
Q: Branching off you being at this conference, I read somewhere that when you quit football you might have been a little naïve not expecting how much attention you were going to get and you had no intention of being a spokesperson. When did that switch? When did you decide you would be a spokesperson and do all the things that you’ve done?
A: Well, the naivety switched an hour after the story broke. I didn’t think it’d be a story and it became that. I thought I’d be packing up my things in San Francisco, putting it in storage and starting a job or applying to grad school and instead I was on a flight to be on “Face the Nation.” I was really uncomfortable being thrust into that role. I think I’ve come to terms with it. Really it’s still a work in progress for two or three years now. I never wanted to be in a position where I’m telling others what to do or what to think. I still love football on a certain level, so it’s hard for me personally at times to be so critical of something that’s given me so much. But this run, and After the Impact Fund and Gridiron Greats and Concussion Legacy Foundation, I know we can do so much good, so I try to put aside any apprehension I have and try to do that.
Q: People probably think you don’t love football. How do you come to grips with what you’ve done and doing and all these problems going on with your love football? I don’t want to say it’s a contradiction, but it’s maybe a slippery slope?
A: I do think there’s a contradiction. I love it on a certain level. I love what it’s given to me, I love my memories of it and my friendships, but I don’t love it today. I couldn’t. Based on the nature of my decision and the work I’ve done consequently, I don’t. It’s hard because I am torn. A big part of my heart will always be in the game, but intellectually I know I can’t support it. I think our society has a tendency to cast things in such a binary way, either you’re pro or against, and it’s anything from politics to how you feel about a person individually or anything. I really feel that’s a disservice to the conversation in football because there’s so much nuance and there’s so many people that feel conflicted, and they have to pick a camp. I would never call myself anti-football. I think I’m pro-information, pro-people making informed individual choices, pro-health, so for that reason personally I’m apathetic towards football. But at the same time, I think we can retain some civility and I understand why people support and love it.
Q: I’m guessing by your words you don’t watch football any more.
A: No, not at all.
Q: Did you stop pretty much when you were done playing?
A: Yeah, it was different, initially I just needed a break, I just was kind of all football’d out and I was the concussion guy, so I just took that first season off. The following spring I went to a spring game (at Oregon State). I haven’t watched a practice (at Wisconsin). Right after I quit and going to a spring game, I hadn’t been around football for a while and I just couldn’t believe I did it. After I quit I lost like 30 pounds and I got around field level and the guys are so big and hit so hard, and I had just been doing it a year prior and it didn’t seem real. I don’t watch. It’s not disgruntled or an antagonistic way, it’s just not part of my life.
Q: I remember a couple of years ago there was an opening for an assistant coach at Wisconsin and some fans were like, “Hey, what about Chris Borland?” I guess even with you quitting people still see you as a Wisconsin guy.
A: That’s part of the nuance. I don’t hate football. If there’s a breakthrough medically or we learn more — I don’t think we’re there today — but I could envision a future where I could justify coaching at the college level. A lot would have to change, not just from the health level but having to take care of these kids financially. But it’s not something I want to rule out. I don’t want to plant a flag because this landscape is changing so rapidly. We’re on the cusp of diagnosing CTE in the living. We’re finding out more and more by doing pathologies of former players, so I don’t want to stake a claim that later I can’t come back and do something I’m in love with.
Q: I found a quote from you from last year when you were in Springfield, Ill.: “I made 420 tackles in four seasons. There’s no safe way to do it.” Are you saying there’s no way to not have concussions/CTE or … what were you saying?
A: I was referring to the notion that there’s safe tackling, which is a myth. Unfortunately the American Academy of Pediatrics and their head travel the country and teach, at a pediatrics conference, teach tackling technique. That is wildly inappropriate. It’d be me akin to me going to a pediatrics conference me talking about heart disease. These are men and women who have not tackled a lot. I think, yes, there’s safer ways to tackle — keeping your head up, seeing what you hit. That’s been around for 150 years. It’s not — safer is a euphemism for dangerous. It’s inherently dangerous. Your brain sits inside your skull floating in cerebrospinal fluid. So it’s about inertia. Every time you run and come to an abrupt stop, the brain crashes into the inside of the skull and reverberates against the other side, and no matter where you put your head or what form you use, that brain slosh is going to occur. The sport is about colliding bodies and our brain is attached to our body, so it’s about inertia. I’m particularly irked by that. I don’t want to claim as to why they are going around saying that, but I can vouch for what’s it like to make hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tackles and the notion that a 5-year old can do so that can prevent brain injury is a lie.
Q: What can be done in the high school level and beyond? I’ll give you one example from Jim Leonhard. He said the guys coaching now learned from what their coaches taught them 30 years ago and so they need to learn how to coach differently.
A: This is an area where I think there’s actually room for optimism. I am a proponent of waiting until high school. From there what would be wise, these kids are actually amateurs, they aren’t paid to do this, they are not insured long term for anything that happens in their career in high school, and they hit the most. A lot of high schools hit more than college and certainly more than the pros because after the 2011 bargaining agreement you can only have 14 contact practices in a season. They should have the same contact rules as the NFL. No offseason contact, limit it to once a week at the most, do away with two-a-days. The game is evolving, and it has involved in the past. We used to have the flying wedge and no forward pass. No one misses those days. No one says it isn’t football because we don’t do that, or now we have helmets and facemasks. So I think limiting the contact. And then Jim is exactly right. He’s a really smart guy. It takes time for these things to change and you know when I was in high school we did bull-in-the-ring and nutcracker and Oklahoma drill and monkey rolls. You can become one of the best linebackers in the world without doing those. So teaching tackling technique on dummies. I spoke on a panel with (someone) from Dartmouth and they have a robot which emulates a running back or kick returner that they use. Obviously that’s cost prohibitive for a lot of people but there’s a lot of creative ways to teach tackling that don’t require hitting your head.
Q; You mention your brain will still get sloshed around. How can we eliminate CTE? Is it possible?
A: I believe it is impossible (to eliminate CTE). However, 95 percent of the people who don pads don’t play beyond high school. If we limit the contact and if we wait until high school — CTE is a dose response disease like smoking — so instead of playing from 5-18, if you play from ninth grade until 12th, for 95 percent of the people that ever play, we’re reducing the exposure by over half. Certainly there will be some kids that have issues but I try not to let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction and I think most would get out unscathed and have a wonderful experience in high school. And to me that’s a wise compromise. I try to be realistic objectively and I think I’ll tell my children just do something else. But I come from a place in Southwest Ohio and played with a lot of guys from South Florida and rural Texas, that’s not an option. That’s so tightly woven into their cultural fabric there’s no … people would look at you with three heads if you told them football’s not going to exist. There is no solution but there’s room enough for huge improvements and some optimism.
Q: Speaking of three heads, since you quit and others have followed suit there are people who say football is dying. But the NFL and college football are still making a lot of money. What do see for the future of the NFL and college football? Do you see the landscape changing or will it be status quo?
A: I think the landscape is changing. I think that those that think the NFL (is dying), I don’t prescribe to that. More of a commentary on who is playing. (Sportswriter) Frank Deford said as much before he passed. Participation in the sport isn’t as much about health, it’s about class and race, frankly. I think we’ve seen that in boxing and we see in football, and I think it’s a trend that I think will continue. College is more interesting. I mentioned earlier we’re on the cusp of testing for CTE In the living and these are places of higher learning, these are places that are publicly funded and are supposed to mold young minds. So if we discover in five years that the University of Wisconsin is giving their students a brain disease, I don’t know how that continues. I don’t have the answer but it’s a really ironic and scary thing.
Q: And it’s not just brain injuries. I spoke with Justin Ostrowski and Sam Arneson last year and both have knee issues from their playing days which limit what they can do now, A lot of players, and maybe yourself, leave college with serious physical issues down the line. But it’s not like Wisconsin is insuring them once they leave school.
A: That’s wrong, and it’s common. People think that athletes have it great and we do in a lot of regard, but universities make a hell of a lot of money off of players. You don’t get a free education, you work full-time year round for five years for an education you could pay for three times over if you just got your market value. And we’re not even talking about the lack of long-term insurance for a sport that causes lifelong ailments. It cost me money to play college football. I have a couple of screws in my shoulder that need to be taken out and I don’t think Wisconsin will pay it. I’m physically healthy, but these screws put in my shoulder aren’t meant to stay in. I’m not angry or upset about it, I just don’t know how you put metal in someone’s body and then they have to take it out themselves.
Q: There’s one more thing I want to discuss and you brought it up — college athletes making money. On Twitter, I get blasted whenever I mention this. I get more flak for this than anything else. For example, when I read about coaches get bonus money for making a bowl game, why shouldn’t the players, who could quite literally be killing themselves, also get a piece of the pie? I’m told about scholarships, or they get the bowl experience and/or a gift, or the starting quarterback will want more than the third-string QB … it’s always thinking in the negative and no concern about the coaches and schools making millions.
A: It’s not OK. It’s horribly wrong. Taylor Branch is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who has written about civil rights and is the foremost authority on Martin Luther King, and in 2012 he wrote an essay for The Atlantic about college sports, and he’s probably better known for that. I think the final line in the piece was “an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.” I talked earlier this week here on a panel on college corruption (where Borland said: “I’ve seen young athletes from the inner cities put on a conveyer belt and passed through. These are people that have no business being in a college setting.”) If you talk about SEC football, a player at the University of Alabama. What’s really, really dark and scary is … he can’t write his name down on a piece of paper. He’s essentially state property of a Southern state and he’s property for toiling on the field with his incredible strength and prowess for largely a white viewership and a white upper-class administration and coaching staff, so when framed that way, a flight to a bowl game — that’s your work by the way, that’s not a joy trip. They did research into amateurism at Drexel University and they have determined that football players are worth over $150,000 annually and basketball players $350,000, and that’s the median. That includes places such as Kent State and Eastern Michigan. The power conferences? I mean, Johnny Manziel was worth millions and got nothing. I’d assume these people criticizing you on Twitter are Marxists or their points don’t hold any water. I tip my waitresses, I expect when I buy shoes the person at the store is getting a salary. There’s no problem with trying to figure out how to pay whom on the team. Yes, the starter would get more than the backup, just like the head coach gets more than the defensive coordinator, just like a good attorney gets more money than a bad one. I am just completely baffled by how people think that’s a significant point.
Q: My theory is that they paid for college and perhaps still are and/or they’d love to have played football and college and think they’d gladly do it for free.
A: Well, I agree completely. There’s a chip on their shoulder. And also, their experience … two or three years of playing high school football and fond memories of playing growing up aren’t the same as being a pro player or playing in college. And I can say that because I felt the same way. I think if you had asked me these same questions when I was in 12th grade I would have probably said what these people on Twitter are saying to you, but then I experienced it. And athletes absolutely deserve to be paid.
Dave Heller is the author of Ken Williams: A Slugger in Ruth’s Shadow (a Larry Ritter Book Award nominee), Facing Ted Williams – Players From the Golden Age of Baseball Recall the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived and As Good As It Got: The 1944 St. Louis Browns