Now that we’ve had a few days to digest the news of Chris Borland’s sudden retirement, at 24 years old, we can make some intelligent observations about that decision’s impact. Most commentators, in their immediate reaction to Borland’s decision, dismissed its long-term significance for the NFL. Even the most pessimistic voices, while acknowledging that the league may be doomed as we know it, still place that ultimate fall well into the future–“thirty years” seemed to be a popular assessment.
Don’t be so sure.Earlier high-profile victims of the NFL’s brain-bashing culture who came to the general public’s attention–Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, Jim McMahon–only dented our consciousness after they had left the league (in Duerson’s case, he died long after his playing days were over). That made it easy for fans to dismiss their plight; life happens, as they say, and the longer you live it, the more happenings go on. You could easily characterize the crises those players faced (and in McMahon’s case, is still facing) as being as much the product of advanced age as anything else. Football, in other words, could be seen as only partly culpable.
Not so when a 24 year old man–who is not currently injured or impaired, to our knowledge–walks away from the game. Even the most ardent NFL fan among us must be given pause by that action, and has to recognize just how serious the consequences are or may be for those who play the game. And those who are not so ardent? Well, it is those wavering fans who may be the ones who turn the games off and stop watching, buying the merchandise, and patronizing the sponsors.
Will losing just that small percentage of fans really hurt the NFL? The league is, after all, a multibillion dollar powerhouse of profits. Losing just the tiniest shavings off their enormous fan base could hardly be expected to damage the NFL.
But here’s the thing you should always remember about businesses, especially the colossal ones: they’re like piggy banks. With a one person sole proprietorship, there’s only on hand in the bank taking money from it. But when you have a major operation, LOTS of hands are reaching into the bank looking to pull their shares out of it. The revenues are big, but the outflows are big, too.
That’s why major corporations–and the NFL, despite its ludicrous non-profit status, is in that category–always must be seeking opportunities for growth. In business, it’s never enough for the pie to be big, and remain just as big; the pie has to grow to keep up with the demands of all those hands. That’s why the NFL always has to keep itself in the media cycle, 365 days a year, despite its season lasting little more than half a year. That explains the league’s ridiculous and pathetic attempts to seek expansion into Europe. It is why the NFL looks to turn over every dime it possibly can–because it has to keep growing, or it will lose its preeminent position in the world of American sports, if not the world as a whole.
So losing a few fans off the fringes? Or seeing potential new fans turned away by their revulsion over what football means for the long-term health of those who play it? Those defections don’t necessarily mean losses, but they will crimp the league’s efforts at growth. And that will mean too few dollars for too many hands.
A few more Chris Borlands may very well bring about that scenario much, much sooner than most observers currently believe.