Take Me Out

You almost had to be on Mars last week to have missed San Francisco 49er rookie Chris Borland making football history. He did not make a breathtaking play. Instead, the talented, promising young inside linebacker quit the NFL at age 24.

Why did he do that? Chris Borland hadn’t stopped loving football. It turns out he’d had two concussions before the NFL draft in college, then a third during practice. Instead of waiting until he fell victim, like too many pro-football players, to grave, irreversible brain damage, Borland announced his proactive retirement. Despite the thrill of the game, great pride in his team, the roar of the crowd and future millions, he’d concluded the risk was not worth the reward.

Pundits warn us not to make too much of this. Borland, we’re told, is unlikely to start a trend. Even if he does, lots of NFL wannabes are waiting in the wings.

But Chris Borland’s announcement opened Pandora’s box. He bravely named something we all see, but collectively deny: despite significant short-term rewards, USS football today is a violent, dangerous game.

In organizational dynamics, sometimes two forces combine to shake up the status quo. One’s called a weak signal. Often dismissed by those in the know, weak signals upend business as usual to affect how, what and where we operate. The other’s a wild card, an unlikely, high-impact event that increases a group’s ability to adapt to a turbulent environment, like today’s NFL. Borland’s announcement, part weak signal, part wild card, could be a real turning point for pro-football.

Now imagine a throng of microphones like the one that greeted Borland projecting the voice of a top fossil fuel exec. What if one man quit, as Borland did, because like Borland, he can no longer accept what we all see but avoid? What if one industry leader embraced clean energy, before he and the rest of us were overwhelmed by the irreversible pain and suffering of climate change?

Living on earth, like football, is a contact sport. The harm, though, is not just to the players, but to all of us who fill the stands and watch at home.

While it may not have been his intent, Chris Borland may well have sparked change far beyond the NFL. Before Borland, a fossil fuel executive who freely chose to give up wealth and power to tackle climate change was almost unthinkable. Perhaps Borland’s fossil fuel industry counterpart, inspired by this courageous young man, is even now suiting up for his own game-changing announcement.

If he does, it won’t be the first time a weak signal reshapes the future.

So here’s the question: What will come first? A future without football – or one where we’ve swapped fossil fuels for clean energy, thanks to a brave inside linebacker?

As the late Nelson Mandela observed, “it always seems impossible, until it’s done.”