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Is football finished? That's one question to ask while absorbing the unexpected retirement of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland. Here's another, one that's more realistic and more likely to lead to an informed answer:
How will football change now that a healthy, 24-year-old rising star has walked away from the game because of concern about future concussions?
The root of that issue is something I spent time pursuing last summer as part of a story projecting what the NFL would look like in 10 years. What I found surprised me. An idea once propagated only by modern philosophers -- that football's talent pool would shift along economic lines -- has penetrated at least some of the game's decision-makers.
I asked Green Bay Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy if he thought the demographics of football were changing, or would change, as awareness grew about concussions and their consequences. Murphy cited recent studies that have shown a drop in youth football participation, and then acknowledged an issue raised by author Malcolm Gladwell, among others.
"I think the league and USA Football is really doing a great job of breaking through a little bit of the hysteria," Murphy said. "But there's no question that it's an issue. Whether that trend reverses, I don't know.
"But there is an argument that you've probably heard, that eventually all football players are going to come from poorer backgrounds. It's that way a little bit now, for whatever reason."
Gladwell already has attached a name to the idea Murphy noted, calling it the "ghettoization of football," even though we have no firm data at the moment to back it up. In an appearance in the independent film "United States of Football," Gladwell proposed that NFL players would arise increasingly from disadvantaged backgrounds where sports are viewed as a singular salvation. In this theory, wealthier parents are more likely to steer their children away from football, and even those who play -- such as Borland -- will be more likely to move on before embarking on a long NFL career.
Gladwell compared the future of football to the U.S. Army, where recruits understand the risks and sign up anyway. Those with better options usually take them, Gladwell said. In football, he added, it has begun with wealthy parents.
"If I'm spending $30,000 to send my kid to a private high school," he said in the film, "am I going to let my kid participate in a sport with some unknown percent chance of permanently impairing him cognitively? No way. It's just not going to happen. That's over. So from there it's going to go slowly down the line."
To be fair, Gladwell has established himself firmly on one side of what many consider a multilayered issue; he refers to football as a "moral abomination" in which people pay to watch entertainers "maim" each other. That opinion doesn't reflect the sentiment of mainstream America, given the NFL's continued popularity, but his projection of the changing talent pool makes sense.
"Football will vanish much more quickly from Westchester County [in New York] ," he said, "than it will from Modesto, Texas."
This past fall, ESPN reporters surveyed 73 active NFL quarterbacks on a host of topics, including their economic background. Of the 69 who responded to that question, 56 (81.2 percent) said they grew up in a middle-class, upper-middle or upper-class home.
NFL quarterbacks are much different from typical football players given the unique nature of the position. But if Gladwell is right -- and it appears he is, since an NFL team president acknowledged the issue -- that percentage will shift toward the lower economic class in the coming years. That doesn't mean football will disappear along with Chris Borland, but it certainly could change.
Just Wednesday, Packers director of player personnel Eliot Wolf was tweeting about the "amount of calls & emails we get from kids literally begging to get into pro days." Indeed, it's difficult to imagine a time in the near future when the financial allure of playing in the NFL -- in 2015, the rookie minimum is $435,000 -- doesn't appeal to many families and young adults. But those who are more secure economically, or who believe they have options that make the football risk untenable, might be more likely to look elsewhere. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut: And so it will go.