NFL players are sending wrong vibes

By Bryan Burwell
Updated: March 2, 2011

Both sides in the NFL’s labor negotiations have at least decided to put on a good public face over the final anxious hours before the current agreement expires and a potential owner’s lockout begins.

With Thursday’s 11 p.m. deadline looming, both sides are at least trying to put on appearances that they want to get something done. A week ago, they met for seven straight days with a federal mediator present but couldn’t come away with a new agreement. Now they are back in Washington with the same mediators in place, but no one really knows whether both sides will come to their senses and figure out how to keep America’s most popular spectator sport from the idiotic state of a lengthy and damaging work stoppage.

“I don’t think you could have a greater sense of urgency,” Jeff Pash, the league’s lead labor negotiator, told reporters Tuesday. “We all know what the calendar is, and we all know what’s at stake for everybody. And that’s why we’re here. We’re going to be here as long as it takes and work as hard as we can work to get something done.”

American sports fans don’t really want to hear what the millionaires and billionaires are fighting about. This is a prickly time for rich men to be fighting over a ginormous economic pie, with billions of dollars on the table. Regular folks are too worried about their own jobs, their own mortgages, their own uncertain economic futures to be all that concerned about the frivolous needs of the men in professional football. The NFL is supposed to be America’s great diversion. The television ratings and attendance figures tell us how wildly successful the NFL has become.

Even as the owners threaten to lock out the players and create a work stoppage that could leak into the regular season, it’s easy to think that there’s nothing on the NFL table that’s really worth fighting for to that extent.

All we keep hearing over the past few months is that the biggest sticking point in this fight is a dispute over $9 billion.

I understand why the owners would want to make this a big deal. What I can’t understand is why the players have gone along for the ride.

Here’s what they need to hammer as hard as they possibly can if they want to begin to create even the slightest bit of public sentiment for their side. Emphasize that this is a fight for better health benefits for a sport whose high health risks just might outweigh the incredible financial rewards they receive for playing it.

This is an unusually dangerous profession that breaks bodies and ruins retired players’ lives. The fight for the players needs to be about killing any thoughts by the owners of creating a 18-game schedule. As glamorous as television makes the NFL look, the reality is, this is a frighteningly dangerous profession that lasts barely three years, while the damage it does to a player’s body and psyche lasts so much longer. Whatever financial risks NFL owners are taking, how exactly can we dismiss the life-and-death risks that a professional football player takes every time he goes onto the field?

Just consider all the frightening data coming in about the long-term effects of life after football. The suicide rate among former NFL players is six times higher than the national average. Instead of clicking on NFL.comand watching the scouting combine workouts, take a look at GamesOver.org, a website that was created to ease players into a more successful life after retirement. GamesOver.org chronicles in great detail all the horrors that come after the cheering stops.

If you ever meet a retired pro football player, spend a few minutes asking him about the toll the sport has taken on his body and his personal life. Look at how 40- and 50-year-old men walk around like they are in their 70s. NFL players are suffering the sort of traumatic injuries during the course of their careers that require substantial post-career medical care, and as it stands now, former players are on their own because the NFL and the NFL Players Association can’t figure out how to put a substantial amount toward adequate long-term health care benefits.

That is the crime of the century in the football business.

Meanwhile, we keep hearing the disturbing tale of Dave Duerson’s life and death, and I can’t begin to understand anyone in the American fan base who wants to call the players greedy or overpaid or blame them for any potential work stoppage.

Duerson, the former Pro Bowl safety from the 1985 Chicago Bears championship team, killed himself two weeks ago. Duerson was suffering from depression, and before committing suicide he texted friends and family to instruct them to donate his brain to science so it might be examined to discover the reason for the torment that raged inside his head and caused him to end his life.

Duerson shot himself in the chest, not the head. He wanted people to know there was something wrong, and he believed it had something to do with all the concussions he incurred playing in the NFL. This very bright man who earned an economics degree from Notre Dame and was a former Walter Payton Man of the Year worried that he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the concussion-related disease. He wanted it known whether CTE was the cause of the depression that drove him to kill himself and whether CTE was a result of all the head blows he received playing in a Bears uniform.

And now the owners want to add two more regular-season games, asking the players to compete in 18 games — two more games to add to their already risky business — and they try to sell it like the only reason the owners are asking for this is that the fans demand it. I have heard that talking point from Commissioner Roger Goodell repeatedly, suggesting that because fans don’t particularly enjoy paying full price for preseason games, the only logical solution is to give them more regular-season games.

It’s not about the fans. It’s about making more money for the owners.