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If NFL players don’t care about the injuries that will come with a 17th game, why should we?

The owners aren’t the only ones who are ignoring the dangers of their game. Both sides seem to care about the same thing: money.

Despite the increased risk of injury, many NFL players appear to be in favor of adding a 17th game to the regular-season schedule.
Despite the increased risk of injury, many NFL players appear to be in favor of adding a 17th game to the regular-season schedule.
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

It’s not unusual to see a retired NFL player, 25 years removed from the end of his career, with a broken body. Fingers go in directions they weren’t meant to go. Replaced knees and hips can’t prevent a limp right out of a kid’s nightmare. And pain, lots of pain.

The really unlucky ones have health issues associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries. Memory loss, dementia, depression and emotional instability are only some of the potential problems.

The league wants to add a game to the regular season, and it appears a sizable portion of the players is in favor of a 17-game schedule. The NFL Players Association’s board of representatives has approved the new collective bargaining agreement, which includes the added game, and the union’s members are in the process of voting on it.

It’s easy to get mad at the owners and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. They’ve talked a lot about the importance of player safety, but the idea of 17 games proves that they view the people they employ as objects to be thrown into a wood chipper. It’s impossible to argue that one more brutal game in a brutal season is a positive for the arms, legs and heads of the people doing the playing. Especially the heads.

But many NFL players appear to approve of a 17-game season. That tells you that the owners aren’t the only ones who are ignoring the dangers of their game.

Both sides seem to care about the same thing: money.

One more game will mean extra income for each player. That’s what a “yes’’ vote to the proposed CBA means. It’s sad when you ponder it. All it takes for some people to be swayed is cash being waved in front of their faces. Never mind how many health risks, short- and long-term, will come with one more game a season.

But if the owners don’t care about the players, and if the players don’t want to save themselves from themselves, what’s there to do?

Nothing.

Perhaps you’ve seen those public-service TV ads featuring people whose faces have been hideously scarred by the effects of cigarette smoking. I change the channel at the first buzz of an artificial voice box. You’d think the health risks would be enough to scare people away from smoking. But they aren’t. Lots of otherwise smart human beings continue to puff away, hoping that they won’t be among those who suffer later because of it.

Somebody should save them? It doesn’t work that way, at least not yet. The government hasn’t banned cigarettes. The current NFL issue is like that. If players are willing to take an extra paycheck knowing it increases their chances of injury, that should be the determining factor. They’re adults. They clearly don’t care about their bodies. We already knew that by their habit of running full speed into each other on the football field. But now we really know.

If the government hasn’t stepped in on cigarettes, a health threat to the 34 million Americans who smoke, it’s hard to make the argument that the government should intercede for 2,000 wealthy football players and the generations of competitors that will come after them.

I don’t mean to go all libertarian on you here, but no matter how dangerous it might be to add another game to the schedule, it’s on the players to decide. And it sounds as if many of them have decided they really, really like money.

As much as I want to say that they’re being shortsighted, their future 60-year-old selves would probably disagree. The statement you hear often from retired players, their bodies wracked by arthritis, is that they would do it all over again, given the chance.

I like pro football, which means that, if there’s a 17th Bears game, I’ll watch it (talk about self-abuse). I’d prefer the NFL didn’t have that extra game. If one of my sons played in the league, I’d be scared to death. The proposed 17th game would add one more layer of fear.

I know the terrible health issues for players at that level. And yet I watch. Why is that?

When you’re removed from it, when the football players you watch are like characters in a movie, it’s a lot easier to separate your excitement for the game from the peril that comes with it for the combatants. And when the combatants don’t care about their bodies, it makes it even easier.

Shame on the owners, who know better and still don’t care.

As for the players, who may or may not know better, it’s their lives.