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Chris Borland, NFL Top Rookie, Retires amid Concussions Controversy

NFL retiree Chris Borland tackles Taylor Martinez.
NFL retiree Chris Borland tackles Taylor Martinez.

ESPN reported that Chris Borland is retiring after one year, giving up over $500,000 in salary, citing head injuries as the primary concern.

The NFL may be a non-profit, but its member teams are all businesses. It makes me think of one of the shortcomings of business. Normally I would argue that business is the principal framework for societal good. A business like the NFL provides entertainment. NFL team employees earn a living delivering this entertainment. NFL customers pay to participate in football through tickets, apparel, and consumption of ads. Two independent parties looking out for their own best interest are achieving something wonderful. That’s business at its best.

But what would happen if the NFL realized it needed to stop? What if they couldn’t get ahead of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and decided, for the health of their players, as a moral decision, just to stop what they were doing? They couldn’t. Every bit of value tied to the NFL has been based on the assumption of an infinite time horizon. “The NFL will continue indefinitely.” The values of all the teams and all the players and all the marketing are all inflated beyond what any finite business is worth. This is the case for most businesses. Livelihoods and standards of living are at stake for everyone who touches the NFL. The push-back on any decision to stop or drastically alter the course will be extreme.

There is no way to invest in a business knowing that it will someday end. Everyone assumes it will continue forever. If you don’t, you’re priced out of the market.

There is no mechanism for a business to return value to investors from an idea that has run its course. The only thing the business can do is let the investors sell their interests piecemeal, at ever declining values.

Could we be witnessing the start of a long, gradual sell-off into NFL bankruptcy? Will medical science make it possible to bang our heads against one another without lasting injury? Or will the NFL reinvent itself and the game to continue operating indefinitely, as everyone assumes it will, with no complaints?

The pace of business reinvention is proportional to the pressure applied by thinkers like Borland. Right now, there is no change. Will it start? Will it be fast enough? Time will tell.