Players accepted long term pain for short-term gain in new, 17-game season deal
The annual NFL owners' meeting was closed to the public and media this week because of coronavirus concerns, but it was, as usual, open for business. And the business was adding two more opportunities for its players to end up on a stretcher or with dementia.
The recently concluded vote on extending the collective bargaining agreement through the 2030 season was approved by the players with a razor-thin margin of 60 votes (1,019-959). Nearly 22 percent of eligible voters didn’t even take the time to cast their ballot, meaning a new contract with the owners was approved by less than half the players who will be affected by its clauses and sub clauses.
That is on the players.
But the tightness of the vote reflected a clear split between those willing to give owners a 17-game beginning in 2021 in exchange for a slight raise in the salary cap and a few more jobs on the low end of rosters and those opposed to putting their bodies and minds at risk with another weekend of concussive and sub-concussive hits to the brain and bone-snapping ones to their knees, arms and legs.
What many players seemed to miss is that, for some of them, this new agreement will actually mean TWO additional games because the owners also voted this week to add two more teams, and thus two more games, to the playoffs. Instead of two wildcard games, there will now be three in each conference, with only the team with the best record in each conference receiving a bye.
What that means is 12 of the newly expanded 14 teams in the playoffs would have to play four times in the post-season to win the Super Bowl where in the past the top two seeds had a first-round bye. In addition to the No. 2 seed now playing an extra game, two more bottom feeders will also play at least one extra game.
So, for 14 of the 32 NFL teams it becomes at least an 18-game schedule in 2021, and if someone other than the No. 1 seed reaches the Super Bowl it becomes a 21-game season.
There is a simple formula to this which cuts one of two ways. From the standpoint of the guys who don’t ever take a hit (financially or physically) -- the owners -- more games equal more revenue which equals bigger yachts and bigger private planes.
From the point of view of the players, at least the 959 who voted against the CBA, more games equal more plays equal more injuries equal more long-term health issues and shorter careers.
The irony is this was agreed to by less than a majority of the players as part of a deal that also cut long-term disability pay and even redefined the definition of “disability.’’ Guess to whose advantage the new definition best serves?
The players did pick up several more jobs on expanded rosters and a one per cent jump in total revenues added to the salary cap, lifting their cut to 48 percent of designated gross revenues (which is another way of saying they share in some but not all the total revenue). When the 17th game is added that number will jump to as much as 48.8 per cent, which sounds pretty good until you look at the other major team sports.
In the NBA, players already receive between 49 and 50 percent of the gross. In the NHL, it is now 50 percent, and major league baseball commissioner Rob Manfred recently said players in his sport now share “approximately 50 percent’’ of gross revenues. When we’re talking about one percent of the kind of revenues these sports generate that’s a difference of millions upon millions of dollars annually.
To make it simpler to understand, the sport that grosses the most revenue by far and is the most dangerous to both the short-term and long-term health of its players, shares the least. This is not what we were taught in kindergarten, where sharing is emphasized as the right thing to do.
Far more significant than the money is the increased exposure to injury that another week of games represents. While it is true the NFL is eliminating one week of exhibition games, the reality is fewer and fewer actual NFL players play in those games, especially the first and last one. In fact, by the end of pre-season the bulk of the guys on the field will in another week be asking NFL fans if they want fries with their burgers.
It has been 41 years since the NFL added to its schedule, the longest stretch without an increase in games, and the sport has flourished like no other time in its history. So do they actually need another game?
That depends if you spell need n-e-e-d or g-r-e-e-d.
Prior to 1935 there was no set number of games, but that season it was codified to 12. Struggling to make ends meet, owners then reduced that number to 11 between 1937 and 1942 and further cut it to 10 during the depth of World War II, when talent was thin and fan attendance thinner.
The first year after the war, 1946, saw the schedule increased to 11 games and a year later it jumped to 12, a figure that remained standard for the next 14 seasons.
In 1961, the number jumped to 14 in response to the upstart American Football League, which began play in 1960 with a 14-game schedule. The NFL quickly added two games to match it, and that number stood until 1978, a period of 17 years.
Prior to the 1978 season two more games were added, reaching the 16-game schedule that has been in place ever since. That 42-year stretch is the longest period of scheduling consistency in the league’s 100-year history, but it will come to an end in 2021.
But at whose expense?
Owners will prosper greatly. Players will prosper less so. But the dirty truth underneath it all is that the latter will pay for their gains with the further destruction of their bodies.
And, in too many sad cases, the loss of their minds.
f.Nearly half the players who voted in the NFL opposed the deal. Many of those who voted for it admitted they did not want to see the schedule expanded but went for the short-term cash because, well, for the majority of players it’s a short-term job. The average career lasts less than four seasons, a figure that has been a constant for decades. So many of them gambled their long-term health for a short-term payoff..
That seems a fool’s bet to me.