It's hard to undersell how big a story Chris Borland's retirement from the NFL at age 24 really is. Borland, as you probably know by now, retired not because of injuries but because of the potential for long-term health issues brought on by head trauma.
The idea of what this means for the future of football is one that's being addressed widely today. But what interests me is how Borland's decision - and the attitude that lead to it - may be indicative of the changing sports culture and The Sport Ethic.
It's been a while since I've written about The Sport Ethic, but I've been returning to it as a part of several research and writing projects. As a refresher, it's a collection of ideas and attitudes sociologists Robert Hughes and Jay Coakley found that elite athletes possess. One of the elements of The Sport Ethic is the idea of accepting risks and playing through pain. Playing hurt matters. The Game matters, more than anything. You sacrifice yourself and your body for The Game.
Borland's decision flies in the face of that.
What's interesting to me today and going forward is how players (and in turn, the media) react to Borland's decision. There is already player reaction (most positive, but some reflecting the existing attitudes), and there is media reaction that is somewhere between shocked and incredulous. That attitude, I think, reflects The Sport Ethic. It's so ingrained in our sporting culture that players must play through pain that retiring early when not injured - not giving your body fully to The Game - is almost heretical.
One of my ideas in my research is that sports media reflect and perpetuate The Sport Ethic primarily through its routines and reliance on players and coaches as sources. Players and coaches abide by The Sport Ethic, and the media do so by proxy. Also, think of how this decision is being framed. You're seeing headlines and tweets today saying Borland "quit" football - even the original ESPN story says this. In a way, I get it - it's a shorter, active-sounding word that's perfect for headlines and tweets (both of which have character restrictions). But quit is a really loaded word, full of negative connotations - especially in a sporting context. So think about how this decision is being framed already.
How players react to this story going forward - and how the media represent that reaction and Borland's decision - will be fascinating to watch. That will show us if this is just a one-off story, or if it is a sign of a changing sporting culture and a new Sport Ethic.