A month ago, I outlined the primary financial divide between the NFL Player’s Association and the NFL’s owners in restructuring the past collective bargaining agreement.  In that outline I reached the conclusion the NFL owners were attempting to change the rules to further benefit management for a sport that already is heavily slanted towards them.  It is true that players make a lot of money for what they do, more than most of us will ever see in our lifetimes.  But why does that mean that the owners, who don’t put their health on the line and make a thousand times more than the players, deserve even more money?

But there are more issues at stake, most notably the 18 game season.  Many football fans look at this as more-is-better, with football season surprisingly short considering the year-long coverage it gets.  The Players Association fears a sharp rise in injuries and a shortening of careers if the 18-game season goes into effect.  The NFL dismisses that and says that by removing a couple of preseason games, injury concerns will be compensated for.  So how can we make sense of what is really at stake?

I am not going to argue whether preseason games are necessary for coaches or what effect it will have on the legitimacy of future records, I am going to try to keep to the focus on the health impact of an additional 2 games on the NFL season.  The primary issue that comes up is injuries to current players and the shortening of careers.  Bear a few things in mind.  In Week 2 of the current season, 243 players appeared on team injury reports, or 7.59 per team.  By Week 16 that number had risen slightly to 279, or 8.7 per team.  This is not the dramatic rise that has been foretold, and seems to be a rather modest increase considering the length of the NFL season.  Moreover, injuries were actually down in 2010 compared to 2009, which was a huge surprise to me, particularly considering that supposedly more players than ever before are being held out due to concussion concerns who would not be held out before.  However, it depends on how you count them.

In 2009, the NFL released a report that showed that injury rates do not actually increase as the season goes on.  However, according to Football Outsiders, the study made one important omission.  The NFL chose only to count those who appeared on the injury report and not those who went to Injured Reserve.  FO then reviewed the data (derived from the 2003 – 2007 seasons) and found that the number of players missing from each team when you combine the Physically Unable to Perform list (PUP) with Injured Reserve (IR) and those who are simply out that week, the number of players missing in Week 1 (4.04) more than doubles by Week 17 (8.75).  Busting out my old geometry formulas, by the theoretical Week 19 that number rises to a whopping 9.36.  The NFL was right- the number of players on an injury report for that week only increases slightly over the course of the season, but only because players are put on IR.

Moreover, the players who are on an injury report is notoriously unreliable- remember Tom Brady appearing on 75 consecutive injury reports despite not missing a game?  Or players who you knew probably should be on an injury report but their team desperately needed them on the field?  The injury report is probably the least reliable source of information because it is created and distributed by the coaches, not by the trainers and is not an accurate representation of players who are really hurt.  The only reliable statistic likely would come from the Injured Reserve numbers, because those are instances where the team has acknowledged that a certain player simply cannot go for the rest of the year; there is no incentive for the team to do this unless the player is truly hurt.

The bigger question remains- what effect would a switch to an 18 game season have on the long-term health of NFL players.  It is no understatement to say that former players, particularly in the early years of the Super Bowl Era and prior to that, have had their lives forever changed from the damage their bodies took playing the sport.  Concussions have been shown to be linked with depression, dementia, and other brain ailments that can’t simply be taped up and thrown back in.  Making millions of dollars is no consolation if one cannot remember his family or is driven to suicide.  Unfortunately neither side has been able to fully quantify the magnitude of football’s toll on the aging body, and aside from individual stories the Player’s Association I am personally not comfortable taking their statistics at face value.  At this point the debate has degraded beyond the point where either side’s facts can be accepted without a stern analysis.

However, I don’t believe there can be any question that players who play more games, particularly in a single season, will sustain more injuries and suffer from longer-term health issues.  The compromise as I understand it would be to have the NFL take more of an ownership role in ensuring that players’ bodies do not take as hard a toll during the season and offseason.  That would mean doing away with most of the Offseason Training Activities (OTA’s), adding an additional bye week to the season, and shortening Training Camp.  No, this likely would not reduce the number of hard hits that the brain takes, most of which comes during the games themselves.  It would also mean that the NFL would have pony up to provide long-term healthcare for the players in its league, perhaps on the basis of years played in the league and injuries sustained (to ensure that the player who takes a crippling headshot in his first game isn’t left without any recourse).

What we cannot do as fans is shrug it off and say that this is simply part of the job, that when you accept the job you accept the risks.  That may be true, but there are many dangerous jobs in this country and in those, we try to guarantee safety as much as possible.  We make adjustments to try to keep them safe.  With all the complaints about the dearth of talent at certain positions in the NFL (cornerback, quarterback, left tackle, etc), why would you want to have more players injured and spread that talent even thinner in the playoffs?  But more than anything, the 18 game  debate shouldn’t be about the superstars.  It should be about the third stringer who gets injured on special teams and can’t make a roster the next year.

If you asked me, I don’t see the need to extend a season that already runs from August until February and is covered 365 days out of the year.  At the end of the day this is what the owners want and they will get it- I just hope they are willing to strike a compromise so that the health of their labor force is given as much attention as the profit margins.