NFL Labor Dispute: Here’s Why I’m With The Players

February 23, 2011

There is no bigger fan of the National Football League than me and I hate the fact that my favorite sport is steamrolling toward a work stoppage beginning next week. It will be terribly disappointing if the NFL owners and the players’ union can’t come to an agreement that will allow a full season to be played beginning in the fall. Heck, I’d rather endure the torture of another Packers Super Bowl victory than have no season at all.

Up to this point, I’ve tuned out a lot of the negotiations – categorizing much of the squabbling as nothing more than posturing by groups of billionaires (owners) and millionaires (players) who don’t understand how good they have it. But as much as I want a deal to get done in short order, I don’t want to see the millionaires budge on a couple key points.

Unlike some other sports, I’ve always believed that football players deserve every penny they get paid – and perhaps more. Not for what they do on the field to help their team win, but for the enormous toll the game takes on their bodies and their quality of life years down the road.

That was reinforced last week when former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. And he chose a slug to the chest for a specific reason. Before pulling the trigger, he sent a text message to his family asking them to ensure his brain was donated for research. The 50-year-old Duerson was certain he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition believed to be caused by major collisions or jarring of the brain.

We’ve known for years that many retired NFL players struggle with weight issues and chronic injuries to their knees, back, shoulders and much more. Most endure surgery after surgery. But nothing is as alarming as the spike in recorded cases of brain trauma – something no surgery can help. We’re not talking about a catastrophic injury, but one resulting from repeated, routine blows caused by the violent nature of the game.

Duerson’s story is just one of many examples – which range from hard-hitting defensive back Andre Waters, who committed suicide at age 44, to former Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Famer Mike Webster, who battled depression and dementia before he died homeless at age 50. Research on Waters’ brain showed it appeared similar to an 85-year-old man with Alzheimer’s and doctors estimated that Webster’s brain was subjected to the equivalent of more than 20,000 car accidents throughout his career.  That’s scary.

Even scarier, another major point of contention in NFL labor negotiations is the owners’ desire to add two additional games to the regular season schedule. More football – sounds great, right? You’d think I’d love it. And in theory, I would. But I want to see star players on the field, healthy at the end of the season. I want to see them extend their careers a few extra years, not shorten them. And I don’t want to see them broken down in retirement. I’m not sure any of that is possible with an extended season.

The NFL put a major emphasis on fining and penalizing players for helmet to helmet hits beginning last year to try to limit head trauma. I’m sure that will help a little, but nothing will eliminate repeated collisions, short of significantly changing the way the game has been played since its inception. There is a hope that better technology will help in the future, but we’re not there yet.

Right now, putting more games on the schedule is certainly not the answer. Neither is cutting the pay of players or limiting their healthcare benefits after retirement. Bottom line: the owners and players are both going to need to give a little in order to  strike a deal. I just hope the players don’t give too much.