I’ve written for years about my concerns over the wear and tear on the bodies of NFL players. Every time I watch the Hall of Fame inductions and see some of the former players struggling to walk on stage, I’m reminded of the toll the sport takes on them. Of course, when the idea of the NFL expanding to a 17-game schedule for the regular season, I was concerned. I share my concerns, as well as my ideas for how the league could try to protect players better, in my latest newspaper column.
NFL owners appear set to expand to a 17-game schedule
The NFL appears poised to expand the regular season for the first time since 1978. As reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the owners are expected to approve a 17-game schedule starting this fall. It’s also widely expected that the league will not add a second bye week but instead play 17 games in 18 weeks. The extra game was likely a factor in the new TV deals negotiated by the league, reported by Bloomberg to be worth $105 billion over 10 seasons.
Whether the extra game is worth it to players remains to be seen.
Some players and former coaches oppose a 17-game schedule
Several players, most notably Saints running back Alvin Kamara, have already voiced their displeasure with the proposed 17 regular-season games. Super Bowl-winning coaches Tony Dungy and Brian Billick have also questioned the move.
Last season, when the NFL was considering a 17th game, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman called the idea “hypocrisy,” arguing that if the owners truly cared about player safety, they wouldn’t push the players to compete in an extra game.
The NFL Players Association agreed to allow the owners to add an extra game in the last collective bargaining agreement, giving up the extra game in exchange for jobs and benefits in the deal. Still, the players only approved the agreement by a margin of 1,019 to 959, not exactly a rousing endorsement.
Will an expanded regular season increase players’ injuries?
In late 2019, Dr. John York, 49ers owner and Chairman of the NFL Owner’s Health and Safety Advisory Committee told The Athletic that the league’s engineers, statisticians, and the health and safety committee have estimated that adding a regular-season game would have a minimal effect on player health and safety.
It’s possible he’s right. A study looking at the 2015 through 2018 NFL seasons published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that lower extremity injuries were slightly higher in preseason games compared to regular-season games (11.5 vs 9.4 injuries, respectively, per 10,000 player-plays). If you trade one regular-season game for one preseason game, maybe we would have slightly fewer injuries.
That argument assumes every player competes in each game, though. Starters and key reserves often don’t play in all the preseason games. The owners would add a game those players play in versus one they usually don’t.
Adding a game fuels the perception the NFL doesn’t care about safety
Whether or not injuries go up with one more regular-season game isn’t necessarily the point. The perception is that injuries will increase. Or at least that the owners don’t care about player safety as much as they claim to.
Alternative changes that could benefit NFL players and owners
I would rather have seen the league expand the regular season to 18 weeks but keep the 16-game schedule. The NFL still could have demanded more money from the TV networks, as there would be fewer games each week and more viewers to watch each game. I realize that scenario ignores the additional ticket revenue and concession sales from one more home game.
Speaking of the new television deal, I would also like to see owners use some of that revenue to increase roster sizes. With more players available to play in each game, most athletes could be on the field for fewer plays each game. Maybe with extra players on the roster, someone battling a nagging injury might be less likely to play through it.
If we have a second bye week – or even if we stick with the current one bye week – I’d love to see it scheduled before each team’s Thursday night game so they have 10 days off instead of three. The NFLPA could even mandate that teams give players one full week off before practicing for that Thursday night clash.
Regardless of what the players or even I think, we’re getting a 17th game. In the coming years, we will see what kind of toll it takes on the players.
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the April 1, 2021 issue of The Post and Courier.