This year we go into the Super Bowl facing the prospect that there will be no more NFL games in 2011. Why? Because the NFL's owners have chosen to opt out of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) two years early and are attempting to extract massive concessions from the NFL's players. If the players don't give in, the owners will lock them out and there will be no 2011-2012 NFL season.
That's something that cannot be repeated enough: This is entirely initiated by the owners. This collective bargaining agreement was extended for six years by a vote of the owners in 2006. Just two years later, they decided to opt out of the agreement, ending it two years early. The players just don't want to take pay and benefit cuts for a longer season that will make injuries more likely.
The owners claim that they need the players to take pay cuts if the NFL is to remain viable and profitable. But they won't release their books. Trust us, they're saying to players and fans alike. We're in financial trouble. But:
According to Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes SportsMoney, "The NFL has never been more profitable by our count with the average team earning $33 million in 2009 in operating profit (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) thanks to huge incomes for teams like the Cowboys, Patriots and Redskins."
The most recent Forbes NFL franchise valuations show 19 of 32 clubs being worth at least $1 billion. In Major League Baseball, where talk of a labor stoppage at the end of 2011 is nearly non-existent, only the Yankees have a valuation of over $1 billion, as ranked by Forbes.
According to Time:
Public indicators of the game's overall health are overwhelmingly positive. The sport is setting ratings records every week, revenues are strong, and ESPN is reportedly close to agreeing to increase the fee it pays the NFL to telecast Monday Night Football to around $2 billion annually, an increase of at least 65%.
Under the circumstances, "trust us, we need the money" isn't really going to fly. Especially when you consider that player salaries are tied to revenue, have not increased as a share of revenue in recent years (in fact, the player share of revenue has dropped slightly since 2006), and
You would have to turn back the clock to the early 1980’s, in the days before free agency, to find a season in which the players’ share of football revenue was as low as that being proposed by the NFL owners.
But this is about more than money, at least for the players. It's about their lives -- about whether they'll stay healthy enough to continue playing; about whether they'll retire from the NFL physically able to lead full, productive lives; about how long they will live.
Players sustain repeated concussions that leave many with brain damage; this and other aspects of a very physical game have dramatic lifelong implications. This is what that looks like:
A normal rate of cognitive disease among N.F.L. retirees age 50 and above (of whom there are about 4,000) would result in 48 of them having the condition; the rate in the Michigan study would lead to 244. Among retirees ages 30 through 49 (of whom there are about 3,000), the normal rate cited by the Michigan researchers would yield about 3 men experiencing problems; the rate reported among N.F.L. retirees leads to an estimate of 57.
Since the former National Football League player Andre Waters killed himself in November , an explanation for his suicide has remained a mystery. But after examining remains of Mr. Waters’s brain, a neuropathologist in Pittsburgh is claiming that Mr. Waters had sustained brain damage from playing football and he says that led to his depression and ultimate death.
The neuropathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu of the University of Pittsburgh, a leading expert in forensic pathology, determined that Mr. Waters’s brain tissue had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer’s victims. Dr. Omalu said he believed that the damage was either caused or drastically expedited by successive concussions Mr. Waters, 44, had sustained playing football.
Players lose two to three years off their life expectancy for every season played; their average life expectancy is under 60. Under those circumstances, requiring them to play a longer season would be devastating. Additionally, because they have to play three years to get five years of post career health care, a longer season would mean that more careers would end before the player had qualified, leaving more to cope with their injuries uninsured at the same time as they had to seek a new career.
As Steelers receiver Hines Ward says:
If they're so worried about what concussions will do to us after our careers, then guarantee our insurance for life. And if you're going to fine me for a hit, let the money go to veteran guys to help with their medical issues. To say the league really cares? They don't give a fuck about concussions. And now they want to add on two extra games? Are you kidding? Come on, let's be real. Now that these new guidelines are in place, you'll see more and more guys lying to doctors to stay on the field. Contracts aren't guaranteed. If a guy's contract is coming up and he gets his bell rung—and if he has a concussion, he'll have to leave the game and maybe miss another one—trust me, he ain't tellin' nobody. Look at [49ers running back] Brian Westbrook. He was an elite player who had concussion issues, and he struggled to find work after the Eagles cut him. Guys saw that. I'm telling you, if you're a guy on the bubble or playing for your next contract, you're going out there and jeopardizing your life to get that payday.
Most players aren't getting rich, either. Though of course when we think of football, the names that spring to mind -- Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Drew Brees -- are highly paid star players who've had years to establish name recognition, they're the exception. The average NFL career is just 3.6 seasons long, and few of the players whose careers last one, two, or three seasons are making millions in those years. In fact, the minimum salary is around $300,000 -- a substantial income but by no means one that would leave you set for life after a three year career.
As Eagles right tackle Winston Justice writes, "Fact of the matter is, most guys aren't millionaires, and, although they are making a good living, many need to play to sustain their livelihood."
It's not just the players whose livelihoods are at stake, either. Justice continues,
The lockout will affect people in every NFL city around the country. It will hurt local business owners, employees at restaurants, hotels, and all of the great people who work at Lincoln Financial Field, on game day, just to name a few.
According to the NFL Players Association:
- Taking away football is not only devastating to the loyal and supportive fans of the NFL; it’s also devastating to their local economies.
- If there is a lockout, an estimated $160 million would be lost in each NFL city.
- It is estimated that over 115,000 jobs would be effected.
But the NFL owners are willing to inflict that damage, too. They're relying on us to believe them when they say they need the players to take significant pay and benefits cuts; to be scared when they imply that without those cuts, football could be endangered. They're relying on us to remember only that some NFL players are millionaires and forget that most NFL players are not -- and that in any case, team owners are far, far wealthier than even the best-paid players. To remember that some NFL players have long careers and forget that most only play a very few seasons. To remember that watching additional games each season would be fun for us as football fans and forget that it could devastate the lives of players who are already risking a great deal. It's a brutal, cynical calculation they're making. Don't be fooled.