Can NFL Players Survive an 18-Game Season?

Colin LobdellContributor IOctober 23, 2010

When the Saints opened the season against the Vikings, perhaps it was the official sign when each team stepped onto the field holding one finger in unison that an ugly negotiating period and potential lockout was looming as we near the end of the current collective-bargaining agreement in March.

Amongst the grumbles and muttered boos from the crowd, was an underlying consensus: Professional athletes always wanting more.  That’s not to blame the fans, they loathe lockouts because, well, fans want football.

However, among the other things they loathe are preseason games.

Recognizing empty seats, poor ratings and their bottom line interests, it isn’t as if the owners aren’t pushing their own agenda as well.

One thing on their agenda: Stealing two preseason games and adding them to the regular season schedule, the first regular season expansion since 1978 when the NFL went from 14 to 16 games.

The players will capitalize too, owners say, from increased roster sizes and additional compensation.  If the players and owners can’t agree on the compensation then a non-partisan arbitrator will step in.

"An 18-game regular season is not uncharted territory," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello wrote once.  After all, the CFL and USFL played those schedules.  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell agrees.

But as the NFL continues to tweak “hit” rules in an attempt to curb overall violence, the question is unavoidable: In the midst of the league doing everything they can to make the game safer, does it make sense to add two more games of carnage?

"The players do not want that to happen," Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and union representative Charlie Batch has said, "because that's extra games that are added on to your bodies."

Indeed, two more games equals around 240-260 more plays for every team.  In other words, 240-260 more hits and would add another year to a current player’s eight-year career.

While latest precautions focus on concussions due to league’s long oversight of the issue, let’s also not forget about the unavoidable overall roughness.  Even as the league tries to turn the sport, as Bear linebacker Brian Urlacher calls it, into “flag football,” anything short of hanging flags from their pants makes potentially deadly contact inevitable.

Not to mention, the NFL can’t do too much simply because, while the league may not be about violence like the MMA, it does quietly rely on what the fans enjoy about the game; hard-hitting and physicality that makes the sport unique.  It has to.  If every game was like the Pro Bowl, no one would tune in.

However, the studies are telling.  The average life of America male: 75.  The average life of an NFL player, depending on position: Between 53 and 59.  In finer details, the average NFL player plays just 3.52 seasons and loses two to three years off his life expectancy for every season played.

No doubt the NFL quickens the aging process.

Even the players that leave the game without major head trauma often leave with their bodies ravished and spend their spare time rehabbing and visiting surgical centers instead of living quietly at home with their families.

A shoulder surgery here, a hip replacement there, it's the life of a former NFL player.

All you have to do is ask:

-When former Bears running back Gale Sayers finally received an artificial knee at age 65, his orthopedic surgeon couldn’t believe what he saw.  Under three long scars from numerous previous surgeries and a missing ligament was a knee with no remaining cartilage, merely dust and bone fragments remained.  That knee was “utterly shot,” he said.  Not to mention the other one was in bad shape. 

-Even modern advancements in medicine couldn’t save former tight end Wesley Walls from a hip replacement.  He can’t get out of bed, put on his socks, tie his shoes or put on his pants without his wife’s help.  He now rehabs in the company of geriatrics.

-Former quarterback Bernie Kosar walks uneven from a broken ankle he suffered in a game in 1992.  He also needs a hip replacement and dons a long scar on his back from when he had two disks fused together to help a broken back.  He broke all of his fingers at least once and both his wrists too.

Not to mention there are countless others.

It’s a hard fact to realize that the game we love can be so unhealthy.  We have selected vision making it easy to perpetuate the belief that football isn’t as rough a game as it seems or that tolerating pain is part of “being a man.”

In an early season of the television drama “Friday Night Lights,” a first-time starting quarterback pulls up his shirt after his first game to display his scrapes and bruises to a mirror and smiles.  He admires his battle scars, like a badge of honor.

Too bad for NFL veterans those scars are real and many times not nearly as transparent.

"Sixteen games are enough," Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said last August. "I mean, you're talking to someone who has been in this business for 15 years. We're not automobiles. We're not machines. We're humans."

Sometimes that’s easy to forget.  Keep in mind fans enjoy the game, not the punishment it induces.  Trust me, as a fan, it’s not easy agreeing with the players’ fraternity.