As Americans prepare for Super Bowl Sunday, the closest thing we have to an undeclared national holiday, many are troubled by the prospect that the contest between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers may be the last NFL game of 2011. The team owners are threatening to lock out players if a new collective bargaining agreement isn't reached by March 3, thus jeopardizing next year's season. One of the biggest issues in the negotiation is the owner's demand that the regular season be expanded by 2 games. The players oppose the idea.
Once upon a time, the NFL was divided into two conferences, the Eastern and the Western. Prior to 1960, the season consisted of 12 games, followed by a single playoff game pitting the two division winners to determine a league champion.
The regular season was expanded to 14 games in 1961. In 1966, the Super Bowl was added to the schedule. Following the merger of the old American Football League and the NFL in 1968, an expanded playoff schedule was instituted. In 1978 the regular season was again expanded to 16 games. Further, the wild card playoff format added an additional playoff game, ballooning the season to a maximum of 20 games.
Apparently, that's still not enough, as the owners want to extend the schedule once more, this time to 18 regular season games. Including playoffs, a team could play as many as 22 games. If the owners get their way, over the last 40 years the length of the season will have increased by 70%.
When the NFL was founded in 1920, life expectancy in the United States was 56 years. In the years since, advances in health and medicine have been astonishing, resulting in an increase in the average American's expected life span to 78 years. NFL players have not fully participated in that progress.
While I am not aware of a single, comprehensive, conclusive study, various sources place the life expectancy of an NFL player from 52 to 68 years. A career NFL player thus shortens his life by between 10 and 26 years. This is to say nothing of the diminished quality of life suffered by a typical retired player, including a variety of severely debilitating mental and physical conditions.
The median salary (that amount paid to the average NFL player -- half make more, half make less) was $770,000 in 2009. The average player has a career that lasts about 4 years. That translates to a total career income of about $3 million. Making the conservative assumption a player shortens his lifespan by 'only' 10 years, he is in effect selling a year of his life for $300,000.
Certainly there are multiple reasons for the shocking health consequences of a career in football. Some players, particularly linemen, lose conditioning when they retire and their hearts simply cannot support their 350-pound frames.
But players are bigger, faster, and stronger than they were 40 years ago. A portion of the damage to their bodies is a direct result of the fact that the forces they hit with are thus stronger than in the past. The fact that players now play 20 games instead of 13 means they have 54% more collisions each season. In addition, a longer season means a shorter offseason to allow their bodies to rest and repair.
We don't need a government white paper to conclude that the principal cause of injury and shortened life is the cumulative concussive affect on the brain, joints, and other organs caused by the impact that a professional football players' body endures play after play. And I don't need to be a neurologist to know that this matters. A lot.
NFL owners are among society's most privileged group. Forbes estimates the value of the average NFL franchise to be $1.02 billion, up 254% since 1998. Regardless of their vast wealth, the league was granted limited antitrust exemption allowing the merger of the NFL and AFL. Additionally, taxpayers often subsidize owners by bearing much of the cost of new stadiums built specifically for NFL teams.
In spite of these unearned (and arguably undeserved) privileges, the owners want more. For these billionaires, enough just isn't enough. Apparently, they 'need' the revenue associated with the additional two regular season games to make ends meet. They propose the elimination of two preseason games to offset the increase, claiming the shorter preseason should still be sufficient for the teams to evaluate new talent.
If that is true, why not simply eliminate the two unnecessary preseason games, thus effectively shortening the season for the first time in 40 years?
Actions speak louder than words. Regardless of what the league may say, the welfare of their players is not a top priority. They are treated as replaceable 'inventory'. After all, there are an abundance of new college recruits available every year.
There is no statistic for the life expectancy of NFL owners, but I would guess it to be comfortably north of 80. So here's a question for Bob Kraft, Jerry Jones, Al Davis and their friends. How many years of your life are you willing to sell me for $300,000 apiece?
There is one issue in this negotiation between owners and players that trumps all others. Player health and safety. There is no argument for expanding the season other than owner greed. Frankly, I don't find that one particularly compelling.