COSTA MESA, Calif. -- After a year that included a life-threatening pulmonary embolism diagnosis, becoming a father for the first time, and a serious evaluation of his football mortality, Los Angeles Chargers left tackle Russell Okung has ambitious plans for his offseason.
"Right now, I'm excited to start reading again and really challenging myself to be a better learner," Okung says. "I'm going to spend the next couple of weeks getting back to academia and training my brain to think critically about certain things. But a lot of my energy is going into what's going on with the NFLPA and our negotiations with management."
Okung has spent much of his professional career concerned with the structure of the NFL and the welfare of players. He made waves in 2015 when he opted to represent himself in free agency, negotiating his contract with the help of a lawyer rather than pay a percentage of his earnings to an agent. That trend continues to grow, with stars like the San Francisco 49ers' Richard Sherman and the Seattle Seahawks' Bobby Wagner also ditching the player-agent model and subsequently inking lucrative deals of their own.
Now, Okung hopes to influence the direction of the next NFL collective bargaining agreement, a pursuit that could include a run for NFL Players Association president. The current deal expires following the 2020 season, and the league and the players' union have already met to discuss the parameters of a new agreement. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith sent a memo to players last week detailing the progress of the CBA negotiations, including revenue splits, reduction of certain fines, and alterations to the league's drug policy.
Still, Okung remains concerned about the lack of progress in other areas.
"I think health and safety is one of our largest core issues," Okung says. "Until we get a better understanding in terms of recognizing the ailments that players suffer, the variety of ailments that they suffer, and conditions and such, we need to come to a mutual understanding on how to service current and retired players. When we consider the magnitude of the effects that the game has on players, it's not marginal."
During the current CBA talks, the NFL has pushed to expand the regular season and playoffs, a possibility that has gained enough traction to receive mention in the NFLPA's recent memo. Under the current regular-season format, teams play 16 games over 17 weeks. During that stretch, each club will play at least once on Thursday night, providing just four days of rest between contests. Okung sees that structure as deeply problematic and at odds with what science has revealed about head injuries.
"I think a lot of people are still playing at risk," Okung says. "Most scientists would make claims suggesting that 14 days is the more appropriate recovery for any traumatic brain injury. Concussive stuff. Traumatic brain injuries. Small repetitive hits. Consecutive repetitive hits to the head. Every Sunday, if not throughout practice, there are some collisions. In the big event -- assuming that the big event is a Sunday -- there are a lot of scientists that say we're much better off having 14 days to recover. Now, the way our season's structured, the format of it, is not inclined to recognize that situation. I think right now, there's a lot of issues that we need to have solved. They don't just take into account Thursday games, but take into account the current effects of players are going through now."
In stark contrast to the league's proposal to add games, Okung openly questions whether reducing the length of the season might better serve the interests of the players.
"Does 16 games make sense for us?" Okung asks. "Perhaps it should be 14. You can look at the articles right now. Look what's in the news. Look at the lengths that players are going through to get adequate [medical] coverage. Something's missing there. So, is the answer maybe less games? Are we saying that health is the maximum priority to our game? I would think so. That's something a lot of people need to consider."
The NFL's regular season didn't always last 16 games. Until 1961, it maxed out at 12 contests. That figure increased to 14 for the majority of the subsequent two decades before leveling off at 16 games in the late 1970s. Each time, schedule expansion came out of a desire to increase revenue and widen interest in the league.
Ultimately, the question of season length boils down to both parties balancing financial considerations with the need to safeguard the health of the players.
"Therein lies the crux of the matter," Okung says. "Is it more money or our players' health? Are we concerned with the longevity, the future of the game, so people coming into this want to actually participate in this game? Because right now it's not looking so good. I'm much more interested in building a game that's sustainable, remotely safe, and something that people of future generations actually want to participate in. Or else we end up like boxing. That's not something that anybody wants."
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH