In theory, if you’re a football fan, the only thing better than NFL football is even more NFL football.
As such, the owners’ attempts in recent years to get the NFL Players Association to go along with extending the regular season to 18 games should be a big win not just for the league, which would get the extra sponsor and gate revenue of two more games of football, but for the fans as well.
The problem, besides diluting the value of the games themselves — football’s regular season is more compelling than other sports precisely because a three-game losing streak in September can make the difference between home field in the conference championship and missing the playoffs entirely — is that football is a brutal game with lots of injuries. Two more games a year is two more games of ligaments, tendons, muscles and bones getting bumped, bruised, torn, broken and just generally damaged.
So needless to say, the players’ union isn’t too keen on an 18-game regular season, according to The Wall Street Journal.
NFLPA president and free agent offensive tackle Eric Winston didn’t mince words when he pointed out that without fully guaranteed contracts and the promise of proper health coverage after retirement, an 18-game season is a line in the sand.
“They’re looking at it like, ‘Hey, get back into the mine and start mining coal,'” Winston said.
The Journal reported the union did an analysis that found an 18-game season would drop the average length of an NFL career from 3.3 to 2.8 years.
That’s significant because it is at the three-year mark that players become eligible for post-retirement benefits. If the NFLPA’s math is correct, adding two games would kick dozens of players off the rolls for the NFL’s pension plan, not only giving owners more revenue directly but saving them a mint taking care of the people who do the work on the field.
“No players are banging down my door asking me to think about [an 18-game schedule],” Winston said.
Now the owners have an answer for that, adding a twist to their 18-game season plan that builds in a safeguard meant to mollify players concerned that they’ll get all of the drawbacks and none of the benefits of more football.
The owners have floated a proposal to put a cap on games played, limiting the season to 16 games per player, The Journal reported. Each player would have to be designated inactive for two games a year.
Fans might now sensibly be asking themselves, “Which two?” Would teams bench their starting quarterback and other key players during early games against weaker opponents, or would they wait in hopes they’ll earn a playoff bye and be able to sit their stars in Weeks 17 and 18? The impact on competition and the idea of a level playing field would seem to be huge.
On the bright side, scrubs would get a chance to start two games a year while the players in front of them on the depth chart have to sit. But for every rookie who makes the most of that opportunity and earns more playing time, there would be a lot more guys who would make NFL Sunday look like it did during the wretched “scab games” of 1987.
In other sports, there has been talk about shortening the regular season to both cut down on injuries and disincentivize teams from resting their stars on the road, exactly the kind of bug in their program that the NFL is trying to write into theirs as a feature. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has talked about not only shortening the season but even shortening the games.
Likewise, MLB has shown some signs that 162 games might be too many.
The NFL owners, meanwhile, keep pushing to go the opposite way. Which might be a big mistake — after all, since 1978, the 16-game season has worked like a charm as a great balance between enough games to bring in plenty of money and keep the game on TV for four months and not too many so that each game loses its importance and more injuries diminish the product on the field.
One thing seems sure; in a negotiation that already has some observers convinced it will be an acrimonious fight sure to end in a lockout or strike, the owners won’t get 18 games on the schedule without some major concessions.
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