This past week, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross showed why many owners choose to let National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell do their talking for them. Ross spoke out for the logic of extending the current 16 game season to 18 games, saying, "The additional games, the studies show will not really increase injuries. We're still playing 20 games, we're eliminating two preseason games and adding two regular-season games, which is really what helps with the revenues, and make the fans a lot happier and those games will be a lot more meaningful. But in terms of the players, they're still playing 20 games."
The idiocy of this argument is dizzying. Of course more games will mean more injuries. Of course even someone who wouldn’t know Tom Brady from Tommy Tune could surmise the differences in intensity between preseason and an actual football game. It’s like comparing a tofurky to the real deal. These comments were especially galling coming from Ross, whose Dolphins are injury depleted to the point where their starting quarterback is third stringer Tyler Thigpen.
NFL Players Association President DeMaurice Smith wasted no time striking back at Ross. "Comments like that tell me that they just don't get it,” he said. “Their teammates lost two franchise quarterbacks in the same game ... and the message is we shouldn't worry about adding two more games? Men are not expendable and neither are their families." This question about whether to extend the season by two extra games has become one of the great sticking points in the ongoing negotiations aimed at avoiding a 2010 lockout in the country’s most popular sport.
I asked Smith two weeks ago about the owners’ push for an 18 game season and whether it was a deal-breaker in the current negotiations. He said, "Our only strong stance is about signing a new collective bargaining agreement. That's it. I'm willing to discuss anything that guarantees that football continues for our players. There's an 18 game proposal from the NFL that we have looked at - we're going to respond to it - but there are some things that are inviolate. When I show up at a team meeting and I've got half the guys sitting in a conference room wrapped up in ice, three or four guys already on crutches, well anybody who wants to know how brutal this game is, show up at a team meeting on a Monday morning after a Sunday game where you watch some of the best athletes in the world tip-toe down two steps, where if you want to shake hands, you had better be gentle. So it's not an enhanced season, as the owner's call it. It's two more end of the season games where players are already beat up, nicked up, and knocked out."
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It’s this heightened awareness of injuries and the owners desire to throw on two new games without increased compensation that has the two sides in a Buffalo Stance. I asked Smith in May, on a scale of 1-10, what the chances were for a lockout to start the 2011 season. He put it at a 14. When I asked Smith again, he said, "Still at 14... We are still far away from a deal being signed by the deadline in March. Just [five] weeks ago the NFL informed us that they were going to cancel the NFL players and their family's health insurance in March if a lock-out occurs if you're sitting where I'm sitting and you want to know if a lock-out is on the table, I'm not sure that any player in the National Football League would disagree with me that there's a strong likelihood that this is going to happen."
The scheduled canceling of health care benefits for players and their families has been received by the players as a heartless, aggressive act, especially with the recent avalanche of press stories about the physical toll of playing the game. "Our players risk everything on the field," he said. "There's been a lot of media coverage of the helmet to helmet hits, over the last few weeks, and the cover of Sports Illustrated is about concussions...There has been recently a great deal of concern expressed by ownership about it. The thing that we wanted to point out to our fans is that the NFL, right now as we speak, has sued 262 players over their workers comp. It still takes at least a three year NFL career to get any health care after you retire. We had to fight legislation from a team last year to take away workers comp from the players who play the game, being notified in March that their health insurance will be canceled. The players, and likely their families, are saying 'How can you express a concern about health and safety, after watching four hits on Sunday, and then snap your fingers and say that health care is over in March?' It seems both hypocritical and misleading... They put out a press release about larger fines, larger punishments, perhaps suspensions, but oh by the way, ignore the fact that we're going to cancel the health insurance for people who have kids, at least two players whose kids are in need of heart transplants. We have several who have kids on kidney dialysis. Right now we as a union are trying to figure out how to provide supplemental health insurance for the players families.”
Most strikingly, at the end of our discussion, Smith made an open plea to involve fans in struggle to avoid a lockout and made clear that this issue transcends sports. "Fans [who want to help] can go to NFLOCKOUT.com. We will send people to speak at any union meetings or community meetings.... Only the owners make money when there is a lockout, making four billion dollars from the networks and paying nothing in salaries. But everybody else loses. Every city would lose about a hundred and fifty million a year in revenue. Every city will lose jobs. It's bigger than professional football. We all have an interest to avoid a lockout."