First of the month rant — March: Just say no to 18-game NFL season

Posted: 03/04/2011 in first of the month rant, football
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Whether NFL owners lock out players in March doesn’t concern me. The negotiation window extension agreed to Friday on the labor front does nothing for me either.

When we’re talking about rich people debating each other over enormous riches, I find it hard to pick a side.

But there is one thing I’m adamant about after having covered the NFL for eight different seasons: Just say no to an 18-game season.

It’s a bad idea under any circumstance but it’s a horrible proposal if you’re someone who plays the game for a living.

The season is quite long enough already and people who only know the game through their television sets have no idea what hundreds of players league-wide go through each week just trying to play the game they love each Sunday.

Some of these guys are so beat up by December that you wonder how they get out of bed each morning. They spend the entire week rehabbing their injuries just hoping they will make enough progress to get on the field on game day.

I covered the San Diego Chargers during the season in which Antonio Gates limped through the playoffs with a serious foot injury. Gates showed me his toe after one practice and described the pain and it was enough to produce a queasy feeling in my stomach.

Gates was ineffective during that postseason run – he still bemoans the fact that slow-footed Tedy Bruschi of the New England Patriots was able to break up a pass in the AFC Championship Game that he normally would have easily caught for a touchdown – and had no business being on the football field.

He ended up having foot surgery in the offseason and was still trying to recover from the injury when the 2008 season began. It was a superhuman accomplishment that he played in two playoff games despite the serious injury.

When you cover an NFL team on a daily basis, you see all the gimpy players and all the ugly bruises. Each and every player feels the pressure to try to play through their ailments as they never want to open the door for another player to shine and take their job away.

I covered the Chargers in the mid-1990s when Stan Humphries was dealing with serious concussion issues and will never forget the interview session when it was clear Humphries wasn’t able to properly comprehend reporters’ questions. He retired in the offseason, which was the smartest thing Humphries could’ve ever done.

I did an award-winning project on NFL concussions in 2007 that became part of the Congressional record – a real rarity for a sportswriter – and the stories led to former NFL Player Brent Boyd being invited to testify before Congress. I spent several hours on the phone with Boyd over a three-week span and the long-standing suffering he dealt with and the battles he waged with the NFL trying to get full disability benefits (he was denied) should scare each and every NFL player. Basically, Boyd’s story reveals that the NFL will go to great lengths not to take responsibility for player injuries. Hearing NFL legend Joe Montana describing one of his concussions as feeling like a lightning bolt pounding his head also left a huge impact on me. (http://tinyurl.com/6hpxq28)

Another person I think of when I hear about the possibility of an 18-game NFL season is big Ed White, the former Pro Bowl guard with the Minnesota Vikings and Chargers. White played 17 NFL seasons and always answered the bell on Sundays, no matter how sore his body.

White was San Diego State’s offensive line coach in 2005 and had trouble getting around due to major knee and hip pain. White could no longer walk the 150 yards or so to the team’s athletic department facility so after each practice, a cart was present to transport White from the practice field. (http://tinyurl.com/63m768x)

There are thousands of other NFL players with similar stories – and there will be many, many more if the season is extended to 18 games. NFL football is a brutal game and a 16-game regular season is long enough.

The owners are hoping that an 18-game season will be negotiated as part of the final agreement with the NFL Players Association because trading in two preseason games for two regular-season games will line their pockets with more money.

The owners know fans hate preseason games so they figured it would be a pretty agreeable deal to the paying customers. But all the proposal really does is further reinforce the notion that it is totally ridiculous for NFL teams to make the fans pay full freight for a partial product like preseason football games.

What’s really sad is that these 32 owners are much more concerned with how much more money they can place in their already overfilling coffers and have such little concern for players – their employees – and their long-term health.

The owners sit in their luxury boxes on game day having festive parties with friends and celebrities while the players are taking their lumps and risking their careers and livelihoods every time they step on the field.

With the average NFL career lasting less than four years, you’d think there would be more remorse for the players from the folks who run NFL franchises.

The owners can’t possibly be out-of-touch with the brutal nature of the game if they ever show up to the team facility. But the real truth is they don’t care. They feel they reward the players well financially – no argument there; they certainly do – and can always find new players happy to accept million-dollar contracts.

Regardless, there’s nothing about an 18-game NFL season that is good for the players. Two extra paychecks aren’t worth the risks. Not even close.

I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

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