For many sports fans, this week brings the long-awaited change in the seasons. The National Football League -- the most popular of our sports pastimes -- returns with a full schedule of games that actually count in the standings. While those with favorite clubs still in contention for baseball's post-season linger on in their affection for the leisurely game of summer, most of us are ready to turn the page. Are you ready for some football?
America's game of tackles and touchdowns seems a bit different this year. The tentative settlement of the class action lawsuit brought by retired NFL players who were severely disabled by playing professional football has made the public aware of who bears the physical and mental costs of our entertainment. The litigation has made the NFL cognizant of their financial exposure and spurred a long-overdue effort to minimize the damage done to their players. If there was any doubt -- and there could be no reasonable doubt in the minds of those who suffered repeated concussions -- the players now know the risks of their participation.
Watching football is a national passion, and none of these realizations will significantly alter either how the game is played or whether we will enjoy watching it played. We know the routine to follow when someone is injured on the field. We worry about them and then give them a round of applause when they are carried off. Normally, those physical injuries, while admittedly serious, are not as devastating and long-lasting as the unseen and repeated concussions.
Colleges began the annual change of seasons with football games over the past week or so. Those contests also seem different this year now that one team of football players at a fine private university has initiated the process of forming a union. The Northwestern University case awaits a decision by the National Labor Relations Board. I would be astounded if the Labor Board does not affirm the holding of the Chicago Regional Director and find that Wildcat football players are "employees" covered by the Labor Act. They provide services to their University and receive tuition, room, board and books in exchange. While their employer and the NCAA have vowed to appeal any decision that brings them under the coverage of national law, the die has been cast. Despite protestations to the contrary, college football can operate even if unionized, although the NCAA would have to rethink its regulatory scheme.
Watching college football games this fall, some will recognize it for what it really is -- a distinctive spectacle of athletics played by younger men than those who play in the NFL. Not every college player is quite as talented as his NFL counterparts, but the competition is still compelling, especially because this season it will end with a four-team playoff. I am not sure we ever really thought of the talented young men who play the college game first as students and then as athletes. We prized them for their athletic abilities and accomplishments, even if they also pursued academic degrees at the same time. Few watched a contest to cheer for the chemistry major.
The seasons have changed and so has the way many fans think about the fall game. As individuals, we will be able to decide if we even care about the lifelong injuries players suffer. They certainly knew the risks and, at least in the NFL, they are paid well to assume those risks. The NFL has made some changes in the game to make it safer, but not safe enough to lose its valuable audience. The college players also receive something of value for their participation -- an opportunity to pursue higher education, even if the time demands of playing college football make it much more difficult for players to enjoy the academic experience.
The first week of the NFL is like Opening Day in baseball. All the clubs are tied for first place before the first whistle blows. All have the chance for a miracle season. Let us hope that the players we enjoy watching can make it through the season unscathed and victorious.