First, a few numbers. The NFL’s annual revenue take stands at approximately $9 billion, which means that Commissioner Roger Goodell presides over far and away the most lucrative sports league on the planet. Under pro football’s current collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) — originally signed in 2006 and extended last week to (temporarily) avert a work stoppage — the players collect somewhere around 60 percent of “total revenue.” But that figure is misleading, because “total revenue” does not include the expense credits claimed by the owners to offset their operating costs. Those credits exceed $1 billion a year. Thus, as NFLPA executive George Atallah has noted, the players’ actual revenue share is closer to 50 percent. Now the owners — half of whom, mind you, are billionaires — want to grab an additional $800 million worth of expense credits. (They initially hoped to snare an extra $1 billion.) The players, understandably, are balking.
Barring another short-term extension, the CBA will expire later tonight. Disgusted fans shaking their heads at the ongoing labor spat may be excused for condemning NFL athletes as ungrateful, tone-deaf millionaires. Yet I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Buzz Bissinger, Rick Reilly, and Bill Simmons: The biggest problem in these negotiations is owner greed, not player greed.
True, the owners have floated some worthwhile proposals. For example, a rookie wage scale seems eminently reasonable, given the JaMarcus Russell fiasco and other such obscenities. But an 18-game schedule is a terrible idea, one that reflects nothing more than naked avarice. NFLPA boss DeMaurice Smith has flatly rejected it. Good for him. (Smith is also rightly insisting on full disclosure of team financial data.) The owners say they care about improving player safety — so why are they pushing to make the regular season nearly 13 percent longer? That’s like telling your kids to lose weight while also forcing them to eat more Burger King and Taco Bell.
Remember, the average NFL career is significantly shorter than the average NBA career, the average Major League Baseball career, or the average NHL career. Moreover, new scientific evidence from Boston University suggests that the repetitive head trauma suffered by football players may pose frightening long-term neurological dangers. This evidence underscores the massive health risks that NFL players are taking — and it also raises serious questions about the future viability of their sport.
Consider the remarks made by Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman shortly before Super Bowl XLV. “If I had a ten-year-old boy,” he told HBO host Bryant Gumbel, “I don’t know that I’d be real inclined to encourage him to go play football.” (Aikman experienced at least eight to ten concussions during his NFL career.) The linkage between football and brain damage was recently the subject of a sobering New Yorker piece by Ben McGrath. Citing the work of New York Times journalist Alan Schwarz, McGrath noted that “retired N.F.L. players are five to nineteen times as likely as the general population to have received a dementia-related diagnosis.” Meanwhile, “Since 1960, fourteen N.F.L. players have had a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is about twelve more than you would expect from a random population sample.” Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease (though scientists now believe that Gehrig may not have died from ALS, but rather from some other degenerative nerve condition).
Just weeks after McGrath’s article was published, former NFL defensive back Dave Duerson committed suicide. “His family said that Duerson, the 50-year-old former Bears safety who graduated from Notre Dame, had been finding it hard to remember names and to put words together,” Schwarz reported in the Times. “They described a devoted father of four who had spent countless hours with the football players union, where he became familiar with the plight of retired players dealing with physical decline and dementia.” His final request? That his brain be analyzed for signs of cognitive impairment.
Such research is performed at Boston University’s “brain bank,” which now gets funding from the NFL. Brain-bank doctors don’t just inspect deceased football players; they examine all departed athletes whose families agree to donate the relevant tissue. Last week, BU researchers studying the brain tissue of the late Bob Probert — a legendary hockey brawler who engaged in nearly 250 on-ice fights over the course of 16 NHL seasons and died in July at age 45 — announced that they had discovered evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. (Indeed, much like NFL authorities, hockey officials are now grappling with the consequences of head injuries. Thus far, however, the league’s response to headshots and concussions has been pitiful — which is not terribly surprising, considering that NHL “justice” is a bad joke. Just ask Steve Moore.)
Brain-bank research may eventually compel substantial changes at all levels of football. For now, it offers a painful reminder that America’s most popular sport has a dark side. NFL players do a job that entails alarming risks of physical and neurological harm. Their willingness to accept those risks has enabled fabulously wealthy team owners to make enormous sums of money. And yet the owners now want to garner a much larger portion of league revenue. Their timing couldn’t be worse, given the aforementioned scientific findings about football and brain damage.
No, NFL players aren’t the easiest chaps to defend. (That’s putting it mildly.) But in the ferocious labor squabble that threatens to delay or cancel the 2011 season, fans should be taking their side.