Tuesday, June 3, 2014
Say No to the NFL’s 18-Game Schedule
National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell recently reiterated his intention to institute an 18-game regular season. It's a bad idea.
I understand that an 18-game schedule is inevitable. As professional sports increase in popularity, leagues get bigger, and seasons get longer. The NFL is hugely profitable despite by far the shortest season of the major North American sports leagues. Adding two more games — a 12.5% increase — would make team owners a lot of money. The 18-game schedule is going to happen at some point. But the longer we can delay that, the better. An 18-game regular season would be bad for players, bad for coaches, and bad for fans.
The NFL is a violent league. That's not a criticism, just a statement of fact. The players aren't dirty, and there are rules in place to protect them, but these men are exceptional athletes. NFL games are full of 250-pound men who run the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. Games are played on artificial turf, played in bad weather, played the day after 3,000-mile flights. Players risk injury every time they take the field, and as athletes get bigger and faster and stronger, those risks only increase.
A new class action lawsuit against the league, by retired players dealing with post-career health problems, made headlines last week. The seriousness of the ongoing problem with concussions and CTE becomes more evident each year. When Commissioner Goodell pushed for an 18-game schedule in 2011, opposition from players forced the Commissioner to abandon the plan. Professional football is hard on players' bodies, and a 16-game season already pushes them to the limit.
This year's Super Bowl between the Seahawks and Broncos drew attention because the top seed in both conferences advanced to the championship. Injuries have become so common that the best teams can't beat the healthy teams. It's not who's the best, it's who's least injured in January. We rarely see the two best teams in the Super Bowl, because they can't make it through the season with all of their top players. If you add two more games, and shorten the offseason by two or three weeks, the number of injuries will increase exponentially. Part of the reason we see fewer dynasties now is because teams that spend an extra month in the playoffs — with more games for players to get injured, and shorter offseasons to recover — are less likely to stay healthy the following season.
Commissioner Goodell believes he can sell an 18-game schedule to the fans, just because it's more football. I think we're smarter than that. I've been a football fan for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, my grandfather took me to countless games. I collected football cards. I had Dan Marino pajamas. When I was in high school, I started doing my own weekly power rankings and playoff odds. I played college football for two years, until it became apparent that I was better at writing about it than playing.
Today, I watch every Thursday night game, every Monday night game, and three to four games on Sundays. Outside of the season, I watch NFL Films productions and old game tapes, I read football books and the SI Vault, I conduct statistical analyses, I plan my next fantasy football season, I obsess over retired running backs and whether they should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Being a football fan is a defining characteristic of my life, and always has been. I don't want two more games.
Part of the NFL's popularity is its rhythm: Sundays and Monday nights, from September through December, followed by a month of playoffs. Watching every game in the NBA or MLB is almost impossible — a gigantic time commitment. I believe the NFL's popularity is partially derived from the relative ease with which fans can follow the sport. Sixteen Sundays is a time commitment most of us can make. Two more weeks isn't a huge burden, but it does make a difference. At what point does keeping up with the sport start requiring so much commitment that it's not fun any more?
More significantly, when players get injured, the quality of play goes down. By itself, that's a good reason to oppose an expanded regular season. Even players who stay healthy may end up with shorter careers as their nagging problems add up. A longer schedule means more football, but it also means football that won't be as good, and great players who may not sustain long careers. I shudder to think how long the best running backs will last if they have to play 18 games.
We also have a moral responsibility. The CTE thing hasn't affected my love of football ... very much ... yet. The league needs to stop treating concussions as a PR issue and start treating them as a serious health risk. I don't believe we need dramatic rule changes, but the procedures that are supposedly in place need to be consistently enforced, and we need better player education about the dangers of head injuries. An 18-game schedule puts players at risk for not only CTE (which is associated with memory loss, depression, and dementia), but also for knee, back, and neck problems. Hall of Fame running backs should be able to walk unassisted when they're in their 50s. A longer schedule puts the players we admire at risk for serious health problems later in life.
Roger Goodell represents owners, and team owners stand to make a lot of money from an expanded schedule. For the rest of us, it's just not worth it.