TIME NFL

Chris Borland Is the New Model NFL Player

San Francisco 49ers v New York Giants
Michael Zagaris—Getty Images Chris Borland #50 of the San Francisco 49ers tackles Odell Beckham Jr.of the New York Giants during the game at Metlife Stadium on November 16, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

The 49ers linebacker, who just finished an excellent rookie year and was looking at possible NFL stardom, retires in fear of brain injuries. Is this the new football blueprint?

Chris Borland had at least five more lucrative years in him, maybe more. This was going to be his peak earning period. But he decided the rest of his life was worth more.

Borland, a San Francisco 49ers linebacker, just finished a productive rookie year, and was set to take on a bigger role with the team after fellow linebacker Patrick Willis, 30, announced his retirement last week. Willis, bothered by foot injuries, surprised many by leaving the game in his prime. But at least he had a prime. Borland, 24, is also retiring, sacrificing millions to preserve his brain.

It’s a newsworthy decision, but not all that shocking, given the rationale behind it. The brain science becomes more daunting year-by-year: by playing NFL football, you’re risking the quality of your life. A Borland was going to come along at some point: a promising player quitting, before he really gets started.

Is this a bit of a nightmare for the NFL? Sure. The league keeps losing PR battles; Borland’s retirement condemns the game. Yes, four NFL players age 30 or younger have retired during the past week. But don’t expect a flood of players to hand in their helmets. A decade ago, we weren’t even talking about the long-term dangers of concussions. A decade later, a young player staves off the damage. A decade from now? There will be other Borlands. Enough to cripple the league? Doubtful. Many, many decades from now? That’s another story. Fewer young kids are playing tackle football. The trends aren’t good.

Borland, who according to ESPN Stats & Information led the NFL in tackles from Weeks 7-15, when he filled in for Willis as a starter, did the research. He thought he sustained a concussion in training camp, but played through it, because he felt like that’s what he’d have to do to make the team. He called on concussion researchers to get the facts. Borland’s retired, but let’s see if he actually stays on the sidelines. At 24, he can always change his mind. If he follows through on his plan to go back to school and chase a career in sports management, and has a happy, successful life without football … Chris Borland might be the model NFL player, after playing a single season in the NFL.

TIME

Here’s Who Wins March Madness in the Classroom

A complete ranking of the NCAA basketball tournament field by academic success and graduation rates instead of wins and losses

Davidson’s men’s basketball team has won accolades this year for defying expectations on the court, finishing in first place in their inaugural season in the Atlantic 10 after being picked 12th, out of 14 teams, in the preseason poll. The Wildcats run an efficient, aesthetically pleasing offense, a welcome contrast to an otherwise rough college basketball season, where scoring was near all-time lows.

Basketball success is not new to the 1,850 student liberal arts college in North Carolina: Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry is a former Wildcat. Nor is academic achievement: Woodrow Wilson is another prominent alum. Now, the two have come together: Davidson is the academic champion of the 2015 NCAA tournament.

According to new rankings generated by the New America, a non-partisan Washington, D.C. think tank, for all 68 teams in the tournament–and shared exclusively with TIME — Davidson cuts down the proverbial nets. Here’s how: we matched teams up in the classroom, using the tournament brackets to determine the games. If the on-court bracket results mimicked academic performance, the Final Four would look like this: Davidson wins the South, Maryland comes out of the Midwest, Baylor takes the West and Dayton wins the East. Davidson knocks off Baylor in one national semifinal. Maryland knocks off Dayton in the other semi, with Davidson taking the title game.

The full bracket is below.

 

The formula for New America’s March Madness mimics that of its College Football Playoff rankings released in December (TCU won that title). The base measure is a school’s most recent men’s basketball “Graduation Success Rate,” a figure measured by the NCAA that doesn’t dock schools for having players who transfer or go pro before graduating–as long as those players leave in good academic standing. The higher the school’s graduation success rate, the higher they start out in New America’s rankings. New America, however, did subtract points from schools that graduate men’s basketball players at a much different rate than the overall men’s graduation rate at the school. To compare students to athletes, New America used federal graduation rates, which take a cohort of students from 2004-2007, and measured if they graduated within six years. Even if a school graduated basketball players at higher rates than the overall male student population, the difference was counted as a penalty against schools that have low overall male graduation rates.

One important note: Harvard, the Ivy League champion, was excluded from the rankings because the Ivy League does not report federal graduation rates for athletes. So the University of North Carolina, Harvard’s first round opponent, moves on. Harvard was one of 13 schools, including Davidson, Maryland, Notre Dame, Butler and Dayton, that reported a perfect graduation success rate for basketball players.

Indiana was the easiest out, finishing last in New America’s rankings. Hoosier basketball players graduated at an 8% federal rate, according to the most recent numbers, fare below the overall male student graduation rate of 72%. That discrepancy killed their score. Indiana basketball spokesman J.D. Campbell points out that current coach Tom Crean was hired in April 2008, after the 2004-2007 cohort captured by the federal rate enrolled in the school. Indiana’s men’s basketball team does have a perfect Academic Progress Rate, an NCAA metric that measures the academic eligibility of current players, and Campbell says that every Crean recruit that hasn’t transferred or left early for the NBA has graduated (one of Indiana’s three early entries to the NBA, Victor Oladipo of the Orlando Magic, graduated in three years).

To see how the whole field stacks up, check out these rankings.

Read next: The Simple Free Hack to Watch NCAA March Madness Without a Cable Bill

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TIME College Basketball

College Basketball Has Lost Its Soul

Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament - VCU v Richmond
Alex Goodlett—Getty Images The Richmond Spiders play the Virginia Commonwealth Rams during a quarterfinal game in the 2015 Men's Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament at the Barclays Center on March 13, 2015 in Brooklyn.

Attendance and ratings are down. Scoring is at historic lows. Arenas are antiseptic. Why is the sport so troubled?

What are we doing here?

It’s Friday afternoon in Brooklyn, just days before the annual “Selection Sunday” that will decide the layout of the NCAA tournament. The Barclays Center, home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, is hosting the conference tournament quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10, a hoop-centric group of schools whose core geographical imprint stretches from Philadelphia, through Washington, D.C. down to Richmond, Virginia, while hitting a few places in the midwest: Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Dayton. Yet the Atlantic 10 hosts its conference tournament in New York City, home to Fordham University—one of the league’s northern outliers and worst basketball teams.

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and the University of Richmond, two schools separated by five miles in the Virginia capital, are playing a tight, tough game, which VCU will eventually win, 70-67. But the whole thing still feels a bit out of place. The Atlantic 10 moved its tournament to Brooklyn back in 2013 because, more than anything, college athletic conferences have become marketing entities. Let’s bring the show to the big city, baby, no matter the convenience for the “student-athletes,” whose time spent traveling extra miles could be spent, you know, studying.

This rivalry game sparked some electricity. Fans of VCU, which made a surprising run to the Final Four back in 2011, travel well, and as VCU finishes off the Spiders, the place is loud and moderately rocking. Still, the building is only a little more than a third full, according to the official attendance figures. Empty seats dot prime areas behind the basket. Most of the fans are wearing yellow (for VCU) or red (for Richmond), but very few locals seem to be there. The Big Apple hasn’t exactly caught A-10 fever.

Which comes as no shock. Across the country, people seem to be falling out of love with college basketball. Attendance for Division I men’s games has fallen for seven straight seasons, according to the Associated Press. TV ratings for CBS and ESPN are down.

A well-documented drop in scoring, which is near historically low levels, has been blamed for college basketball’s struggles. Ugly play has certainly contributed. Controlling coaches drain the fun and flow out of the game. Players are stronger—and more physical, which tends to hurt, more than help, offense. Technology has made scouting an opponent’s tendencies easier. When you know what your foe is about to do, he’s easier to defend.

These trends have surely contributed to college basketball’s struggles. So have some forces beyond the sport’s control. More than ever, Americans want appointment television, whether it’s a must-see football game or even an international soccer game we can all chirp about on Twitter, or a favorite show on the DVR. We have so many entertainment options: Our investment in a two-hour regular season college basketball game better pay off. Too often, it doesn’t.

In football, the regular season games really matter. In baseball, a fraction of the teams make the post-season, so even the early April games have something at stake. In college basketball, if teams struggle in the regular season, they can earn a March Madness spot by doing well in a conference tournament. Does any one regular season game really matter that much?

True, you can say the same thing about NBA regular season games. But if you like basketball, and can choose between watching the best players in the world in the NBA, or a bunch of college kids throwing up bricks and college coaches calling a million timeouts, and calling for a million fouls at the end of close games… it’s an easy call.

When pitted against football, college hoops is almost helpless. College football is a juggernaut, and college basketball starts its season in mid-November—just as the playoff and bowl chases are coming down the stretch. Into December and through the Super Bowl, the NFL is going strong. Even the NFL off-season overshadows college hoops. This past week, major free agent moves—and in particular, coach Chip Kelly’s casino gambling with the future of the Philadelphia Eagles—stole tons of attention from conference basketball tournaments.

College basketball is in danger of becoming a one-month sport, capturing buzz only during March Madness. The sport’s relevance problem even sparked Pac-12 deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovich to propose on SI.com that the start of the regular season be pushed back to mid-December, and the Final Four to take place in early May—to help college basketball escape football’s shadow.

Officials can tinker with the game. But some of the optics of this week’s conference tournaments also suggest that, because schools have been chasing the lushest revenue streams, the sport has also just lost its way. On Thursday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City, for example, Butler, from Indianapolis, and Xavier, from Cincinnati, met in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament. Why are schools from two Midwestern cities, connected by I-74 through Indiana, playing in New York? As part of something with “East” in the name?

All the conference reshuffling of the past few years destroyed many regional rivalries. Out of this rubble rose a new entity called American Athletic Conference (AAC). ESPN showed highlights from an exciting AAC quarterfinal game between East Carolina and the University of Central Florida that went into overtime. East Carolina won 81-80. The game was played in Hartford, Conn. On TV, the stands looked empty.

College hoops is still thriving in many places. And as we gear up for Sunday night’s selection show, a drab regular season will be forgotten. We’ll fill out our March Madness brackets, root for Cinderella, see if Kentucky can become the first team to finish undefeated in almost 40 years. It’ll be a blast.

But the question is still worth asking: What are we doing here?

Read next: The Case for Sports Gambling in America

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TIME College Basketball

Every College Coach Should Aspire to Be Like Dean Smith

The North Carolina legend proved you can win with class

Too often, the cult of the college coach is way too uncomfortable. These men are campus emperors, sometimes the highest-paid public employees in their entire state. They are lavished with millions, all because their unpaid workforce can make clutch jumpers or bone-crushing tackles. On the back of teenaged athletic success, they are held up as unquestioned leaders of young men, worthy of boardroom worship. Coach can teach your company a thing or two about management, so write him a lecture circuit check.

Winning breeds a fog where all flaws are forgiven. Smart, driven, charismatic coaches deserve our respect, but not outright adulation. We make simply make too much of college coaches.

Dean Smith, however, always seemed like the exception.

Smith, the legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach who died on Feb. 7, at 83, wasn’t perfect. But he never carried himself like he was. Raised in Emporia, Kansas by Baptist schoolteachers, Smith didn’t have a slick bone in his body. “We’d all joke around and say, If I had the kind of juice Coach Smith did, I’d use it a lot differently,” says former North Carolina player King Rice, who played for Smith from 1987-1991. “I wouldn’t be that humble.”

Unfailingly polite, with a gift for remembering the names of everyone in his universe–the managers and support staff as well as the Michael Jordans and James Worthys—Smith was beset by no scandal. He never threw a chair, or cheated. His players graduated.

The main criticism against Smith was that the “Carolina Way,” which required shared sacrifice, stifled the individual brilliance of his players. Only Dean Smith, goes the joke, held Michael Jordan to under 20 points per game. But Carolina had the last laugh, because the Tar Heels were prodigious winners. In 1997, Smith retired with 879 wins, the most in Division 1 men’s basketball history at the time. He made 11 Final Four appearances, and won two national championships.

His players could have compiled more impressive individual statistics at other schools. But college is supposed to prepare you for the real world. No players were more prepped for the NBA than Smith’s. “He taught you everything — shooting, passing, positional defense,” says former North Carolina star Mike O’Koren, who spent eight seasons in the NBA from 1980-1988. “He never limited what he would teach you because of your size or anything.” O’Koren remembers getting the ball on a fast break during his freshman season, and hitting an open jump shot. A few possessions later, he took a similar shot — and missed with the defense in his face. The horn blared, and O’Koren was out of the game. “I don’t know about that shot Mike,” Smith said to O’Koren, now an assistant at Rutgers. “Coach, I was feeling it,” O’Koren replied. Smith: “Well, why don’t you go feel the bench now.”

Smith alums thrived in the NBA: Jordan, Worthy, Billy Cunningham, Bob McAdoo, Charlie Scott, Walter Davis, Phil Ford, Kenny Smith, Mitch Kupchak, Brad Daugherty, George Lynch, Rick Fox, Jerry Stackhouse, Rahsheed Wallace, Vince Carter, Sam Perkins, Bobby Jones, Antawn Jamison, to name a few. No less than Jordan cherished Smith’s approach. “Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than Coach Smith,” Jordan said. “He was more than a coach – he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father.”

Smith took stands, especially on racial integration. He helped an African-American graduate student at North Carolina buy a home in an all-white neighborhood. He helped integrate a Chapel Hill restaurant. Smith recruited North Carolina’s first African-American scholarship athlete, Charlie Scott, in 1966. In 2013, Smith received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. President Obama praised Smith for preaching unselfishness on the court. “We also honor,” Obama said, “his courage in helping change our country.”

Rice, now the head basketball coach at Monmouth University, remembers Smith telling his players they should never cut in line in the cafeteria, just because they were big shots on campus. “He never let our heads get too big,” Rice says. “He constantly reminded us that there were people doing a lot more impressive and important things than playing basketball.” Rice says he had struggles with drinking and his temper while on campus, but that Smith refused to give up on him when he easily could have, given all the other talent on the team. “He would always give me advice, and say, “King, this isn’t what’s best for Carolina basketball,” Rice says. “This is what’s best for you. Not every coach does that. It was like all of us were his sons.”

“He loved his players, he really, really did,” says O’Koren.”And we loved him.”

 

TIME super bowl 49

Brain Science: The Patriots Will Forget Deflategate

AFC Championship - Indianapolis Colts v New England Patriots
Elsa—Getty Images Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots in action against the Indianapolis Colts of the 2015 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 18, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

In sports, media and fans talk a lot about distractions. But researchers find that they're quite overrated.

Distraction: it might be the most needlessly analyzed term in all of sports. Especially over the last year or so. Jason Collins signs with the Nets: will the first openly gay player in the NBA serve as a distraction? (Turns out, no). Will Michael Sam fall in the NFL draft, because teams fear that the first openly gay player in the NFL would distract the locker room? (Such a fear surely cost Sam draft position).

Every year, distractions are a rote Super Bowl story line. Will the players be able to handle all ticket requests, the glare and anticipation of over a hundred million Americans, and still play football? This year, the distractions lurk like a lobby autograph hound. How will Deflategate impact the New England Patriots? Can they stay focused while a large segment of the world calls them cheaters? And now, the news out of Seattle’s camp: the girlfriend of star cornerback Richard Sherman could go into labor any moment now. Will Sherman actually skip the game to be in the delivery room? How ever will the Seahawks tune this out?

Turns out, there’s a group of researchers at Brown University that have recently been studying the science of distraction. Odds are, the players will be just fine. “The brain does an amazing job tuning out distractions,” says Catherine Kerr, a neuroscientist and assistant professor at Brown’s Alpert Medical School. “We’d all be psychotic if it didn’t.”

Humans – especially pro athletes — have a lot going on, and the brain is wired to cope. In study published in December in the journal Psychological Science, two Brown researchers – Joo-Hyun Song, assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological science and Patrick Bédard, assistant professor of neuroscience — found that being distracted while learning a motor task did not hinder a subject’s ability to perform the task, as long as the subject was also distracted during recall. In other words, as long as we’re always distracted, we’ll perform just fine.

The Patriots have practiced their game plan all week amidst the specter of Deflategate. The scandal shouldn’t suddenly pop into the players’ minds on Sunday, rendering them useless. And both New England’s Bill Belichick and Seattle coach Pete Carroll even blasted hip-hop music during the team’s practices in Arizona, to try to replicate the Super Bowl game day noise.

Kerr credits two brain regions for blocking out distractions. The thalamus, a structure that sits just above the brain stem, “filters out about 85% of the sensory inputs,” she says. Meanwhile, the right interior frontal cortex is known to govern the stopping of action and attention. Kerr’s recent lab work, done with Stephanie Jones, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Brown, has shown that this brain region sends out electric signals, telling other areas not to act on unimportant impulses. “It helps the brain pay attention to the right things,” says Kerr.

We’re all at risk of perseverative cognition, the scientific term for repetitive thought that can overwhelm the brain’s various systems for managing internal and external noise and distraction. The Pats have heard all week that they’re cheaters, and if the players are worried that they’re perceived that way, the negative vibe could steal precious brain resources. But don’t bet on this outcome. Belichick, for all his flaws, has a proven ability to focus his team on the task at hand. And athletes are so accustomed to fighting sensory overload, these little “scandals” are hopelessly overrated. “Every week, football players deal with 90,000 screaming fans, the TV cameras, the people yelling on the field, to make the right read and play,” says Kerr. “When it comes to tuning out distractions, the players in the Super Bowl are already virtuosos.”

Science has spoken. Let’s now stop talking about the D-word.

TIME super bowl 49

Marshawn Lynch Owes Us Nothing

NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks Team Media Availability
Christian Petersen—Getty Images Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch sits at his podium during a Super Bowl XLIX media availability at the Arizona Grand Hotel on January 28, 2015 in Chandler, Arizona.

Like it or not, the Seattle running back's media boycott does him no harm. So why should he speak?

Seattle Seahawks star running back Marshawn Lynch has made a sport of ignoring the press. At Super Bowl media day on Tuesday, he answered questions with a stock response: “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” He uttered that phrase 29 times in less than five minutes. (Reportedly, the NFL threatened Lynch with a $500,000 fine if he didn’t show). During Wednesday’s media session, he switched things up a bit. “You know why I’m here,” Lynch said 14 times.

Lynch’s performance sparked the typical finger-wagging. “Crass Act,” screamed one columnist. Boycott Skittles! (Lynch has a confectionery deal).

Or is Lynch actually an American hero?

Then there was this tweet:

Wow, that’s quite a proclamation on the importance of one’s profession. Especially in 2015.

Athletes no longer need the media; more specifically, the news organizations that used to have a sweet monopoly on delivering what we now call “content.” (Surely the television and distribution arms thats deliver the actual football action to millions of viewers help underwrite Lynch’s paycheck. But Lynch isn’t sticking it that type of “media.” And the complaints aren’t coming from, say, the network that will draw a record number of eyeballs Super Bowl Sunday, no matter how Lynch behaves). If Lynch wants to put his story and views out there, he can do it himself on Twitter. Or nab a senior editorship at Derek Jeter’s thingy. Or on the team website. Or on Entertainment Tonight, with whom Lynch actually chose to speak.

That’s the key: the choice is his. A more charismatic media presence could win Lynch more endorsement deals. But as long as he can plow through defenses on the football field, he’ll still make millions if he never says a word. You can think Lynch’s act is rude and is doing the media, and a segment of fans, a disservice. You can think the NFL’s fines are draconian. But you just can’t argue that third-party inquisitors are the reason Lynch and his fellow NFL players are the most obsessed-over athletes in the country. If Lynch wants to shut it down, no one will stop watching him play.

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