I’ll be frank: I didn’t give the Super Bowl my best effort.
What do I mean by that? Well, one of the few downsides of being a sportswriter is that I don’t get to enjoy the games as a fan like most people (Boo-hoo, right?). I usually watch alone, in the quiet of my house, without distraction, in large part so I can hear the announcers, analyze everything and put my own spin on it. I don’t wear jerseys. I don’t drink beer. And I don’t congregate with friends. It’s just how I feel that I do my job best.
So when I say that I didn’t give the Super Bowl my “best effort,” what that really means, is that for once I just let my hair down and had some fun. I took off my sportswriter’s hat, and threw on a fan hat instead. I put away my notebook, my buddy came over, and we drank beers and ate pizza like the rest of you. Granted that much like Christina Aguilera, I’m carrying some extra weight this morning. But still, I had a good time.
Of course what it also means, is that I don’t have any really strong opinions on the game. Because I wasn’t taking notes, or paying particularly close attention, I can’t tell you why the Packers won, why the Steelers lost, or even if Ben Roethlisberger had any food crumbs stuck in his beard. Again, Sunday night was just about having fun, not about being a sports columnist.
The one thing I did notice though, was that in a season where injuries were a major theme, and concussions more commonplace than people making fun of Joe Buck, it seemed like every time I turned around, someone was being taken to the locker room by the trainer, or limping off the field wincing in pain. The fact that two of the Packers most recognizable players- Donald Driver and Charles Woodson- ended the game on the sidelines, only added to the effect.
Which is kind of ironic, isn’t it? That after an excellent Super Bowl where the central theme was “The Packers overcoming injuries to win,” some of the central themes of this upcoming off-season are expected to include, “Lockout,” “owners vs. players,” and “18-game schedule.” And as I stayed up late after Sunday night’s game, thinking, and Googling as much information about the subject as I could, all the blame came back to one person. Roger Goodell.
Seems a little extreme, right? Well before we get to Goodell’s role, let me explain as best I can why this lockout is going to happen.
Essentially it all comes down to money. Just like in the real world, cash is king, and the NFL is a green machine. Yet for all the money the sport- which by all accounts is by far the fiscally strongest professional sports league by far- is making, it’s still not enough for Goodell and the owners.
Here are the facts: From every report I could find, the NFL makes just under $9 billion from their TV contract. Right off the top, the owners get a $1 billion of that money. From there, player salary and costs constitute 59.9 percent of what’s left, with ownership getting the other 39.1 percent. So when you hear people say that the players get a 60-40 split of the profits, that’s just not true. The players get just under 60 percent after the first billion is taken. I’m no economist, but it seems like simple math, no?
From there, what it comes down to is that the owners believe they’re getting too small a cut of the pie, and want an extra billion off the top (even though they collectively bargained the current structure just five years ago in 2006). And they want it to come from the players, either by giving money back, or by cutting salaries. In a surprising twist of events, the players aren’t all too crazy about this idea.
Really though, do you blame them? Football is a sport that at best, would be described as “violent,” and at worst, “barbaric.” The average career lasts barely over three years, and most players don’t get much of their contract- if any- guaranteed. In the end, that leaves most NFL players as glorified day laborers, no different than the guy you call to clean your gutters today, and forget about tomorrow. Don’t let Tom Brady and Peyton Manning fool you. Most everyone in the league is as expendable as a ripped pair of jeans. If they get hurt today, there’s a reasonable chance that they’re not getting a check tomorrow.
And it’s not like once these guys leave the league they walk around with a silver spoon. We’ve all heard the stories about the number of guys who end up divorced, broke or homeless within years. Now I know it’s easy to say, “They should’ve planned better,” but how can you plan for simply one day just not getting a paycheck?
Then again, with everything we’ve learned about the long-term health effects of playing in the NFL, the ones who’ve only got financial problems are lucky. That’s because as crazy as this sounds, using your body like a battering ram for four years of high school, four years of college and a professional career is going to leave you beat up, sore and very likely needing medical attention, if not literally losing your mind from all the blows to your head. The stories are entirely too many to recount, but we all know some of them. Like how all-time great Mike Webster died at 50 and ended up living the last couple years of his life in a Pittsburgh Amtrak Station, or how more recently Patriots great Ted Johnson is battling depression, memory loss and a bunch of other side effects. It’s assumed that using his head as a weapon for 20 years of his life probably contributed to some of those problems.
Which is where Goodell, the owners and the idea of an 18-game schedule come back into play. After all, two more games is some more coin the pocket, but at what cost?
Of course all that talk is coming off a season in which the whole league ended up more battered and bloodied than Forrest Gump’s platoon in Vietnam. Completely off the top of my head, here are some of the injuries that I remember from the last six months: Brett Favre’s season ending with a hand injury; Michael Vick missing time with bruised ribs; the man who Vick replaced in the starting lineup- Kevin Kolb- missing time with a concussion; their Philadelphia teammate D’Sean Jackson going down with the same injury; Tony Romo hurting his shoulder; Chad Pennington throwing a grand total of two passes before injuring his shoulder too; Austin Collie getting so many concussions he probably thinks “Peyton Manning” is a chic clothing line out of France, and not his starting quarterback; Ed Reed ending up on the Physically Unable To Perform list, before the season even started; and of course, a concussion to Aaron Rodgers almost costing the Packers a postseason berth and shot at the Super Bowl they just won. Again, those are just the injuries that I remember off the top of my head.
Now obviously a contrarian would say, “But Aaron, it’s football. It’s violent. Injuries happen. These guys know what they signed up for. Nobody forced them into the profession.”
I agree. Still, doesn’t it seem like injuries were more commonplace than ever this year, and that maybe we’ve reached a weird tipping point with the league as a whole? Coaches always talk about getting, “Bigger, faster, stronger,” but I’ve got to ask, is everyone “Too big, too fast, and too strong?”
Just as an example, take yesterday. While trying to avoid the 29 hours of pregame coverage for the Super Bowl, I flipped on an episode of Real Sports, where there was a story on the health concerns with of growing size of NFL lineman. We all know that through diet, training, nutrition and evolution, you basically can’t play in the trenches anymore if you’re under 300 lbs.
Yet, one thing that struck me during the discussion, was Bryant Gumbel mentioning that the first “modern,” NFL offensive line was the Washington Redskins “hogs,” of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Guess how much their average weight was? Right around 270 lbs. Could you even get on a college field weighing 275 these days? Yet the Hogs played only 20 years ago.
Players are getting bigger, faster and stronger at all other positions too. Running backs and wide receivers run faster, and safeties and linebackers hit harder. Using some simple science I remember from high school, force equals mass times acceleration. Well if linebackers have more mass than ever before and running backs are accelerating faster, is it any wonder that everybody keeps getting hurt?
Which is why I blame Goodell more than anyone else. For a man who claimed this season that one his top priorities was player safety, and handed out expensive fines like they were Halloween candy, the idea that he wants to add two more games is not only preposterous, it’s embarrassing. And from everything I've read, it’s not like the and the owners are willing to make many additional concessions to get the players to agree on 18 games. I can't find anything that says the owners want to add to the retired players fund (even though the NFL basically has its own currency at this point), and I don’t see them guaranteeing more money to their current players.
Truthfully, you know what the biggest concession I can come up with is? Adding two additional roster spots to each team. Really, that’s the best they’ve got? Getting two more guys onto an undersized roster as it is? Is that really going to limit all the collateral damage of adding two more games?
Speaking of which, you want to know what the cherry on top of this whole thing is? If a deal doesn’t get done by the beginning of March, the NFL has decided that they’re going to cut off the player’s health insurance. So what we’re really looking at is the owners saying, “You got hurt on our field, playing our game and putting money in our pockets. We appreciate it. But if you don’t play by our rules going forward we’re not going to pay for you to get healthy this off-season. And oh, also, when you come back, you’re going to be playing two additional games.” I don’t care how much money NFL players make, would you want to work for people like that?
In fairness to Goodell, and for the sake of good journalism, I’ve absolutely racked my brain to try and find some way to at the very least take some of the liability off of him if a lockout does go down (And by the way, remember that this is a lockout, not a strike. In a strike, the players refuse to show up to work. In a lockout, the owners won’t let them work).
The best I can come up with for Goodell is this: At the end of the day, his job is to work for the owners. His allegiance and commitment lies with them, and making the sport of football fiscally profitable for the foreseeable future. As he’s repeatedly said, a lockout wouldn’t be about creating economic viability for the next year, but the next 15.
Isn’t that a little bit of not being able to see the forest through the trees though? After all, while the additional two games will put money in the owner’s pockets up front, isn’t there a risk it’ll take some out on the back end? After all, why do you watch the NFL, and show up at the stadium? To see the great teams and players, right? Do you tune into to watch Tony Romo and Brett Favre, or Jon Kitna and Joe Webb? Well aren’t you risking losing fans and interest when your rosters and teams get depleted by additional games? Isn’t the revenue from an extra home game going to be crushed when 30,000 people don’t show up because all their favorite players are hurt?
Sadly in the end, the owners are going to get their way, if only because they always do. If they want 18 games next year, they’re going to get it, and if they want 20 games five years from now they’ll get that. If history has taught us anything, it’s that in a battle of millionaires vs. billionaires, the billionaires always win. The millionaires run out of money faster.
Just remember though, that as we head toward an uncertain NFL future, and a spring filled with questions and a summer of uncertainty, it isn’t those players to blame. Yes, they want to get their paychecks, and no they aren’t willing to sacrifice money. But then again if your boss said that you had to take a pay cut and wouldn’t be let into work if you didn’t, how would you feel? Not too good I bet.
Really though, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
If last night’s Super Bowl was the last NFL game for a very long time, well, shame on him.
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