NFL's 18-Game Regular Season: Why the NFL Should Say 'No'

Tom DohertyCorrespondent IFebruary 8, 2011

Roger Goodell wants the NFL to play 18-regular season games
Roger Goodell wants the NFL to play 18-regular season gamesDoug Pensinger/Getty Images

There’s never been a better time for the NFL than right now.

It has successfully passed every other major sport in popularity. The NFL commands the contract of every major television network in America for a whopping $11.5 billion a year. People would rather watch the NFL Draft then watch Game 5 of the World Series these days.

And apparently, despite crafting the biggest sports industry in the free world, there’s a very good chance that the NFL is going to try to fix something that’s clearly not broken.

Unfortunately, my biggest issue with the NFL’s labor dispute is the one most likely to change in 2011. The proposal of an 18-game regular season is ludicrous, unnecessary and a downright greedy decision by the NFL.

Some of the issues involved in the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement are debatable. For example, the proposed rookie wage scale benefits veteran players and league owners by rewarding proven players with higher salaries and lowering the financial risk of missing on high draft picks.

The 18-game schedule, however, demands that the players sacrifice their careers for two more games a year for less pay, while the NFL owners count the cash collected from the extra home game, hot dog and beer sales and TV ratings paychecks. There is no debate—only the owners are winning here.

The “debate” becomes even less clear when you look at the latest injury statistics from this past season. The NFL Player’s Association released the facts about injured players, comparing the averages from the 2002-2009 seasons and this past one in 2010.

The numbers paint quite a picture.

An average of 3.2 players were injured in every game during the previous eight seasons. In 2010, 3.7 players were injured in every game. We’re not talking about sprained ankles here—13 percent of injured players were placed on injured reserve (IR) for season-ending injuries, as opposed to only 10 percent over the previous eight seasons.

And as for the amount of players whose seasons were ended by injury? In the previous three seasons, an average of 404 players were placed on IR. No surprise that in 2010 that number increased to 464.

Basically, what this means in a sport where the average career only lasts three-and-a-half years, is that more and more players are suffering severe injuries than ever before. Keep in mind that this is not baseball or basketball where player contracts are guaranteed.

These guys have to make the team every year regardless of past success. Adding two more punishing regular season games greatly increases the likelihood that on one play, a player’s non-guaranteed career could be over in an instant.

To make matters worse for the players, the main reason for the potential owner lockout (not a strike) is the current split in league revenue. The owners claim that there is a 60/40 split in favor of the players and that, in turn, is costing them money they need to keep their stadiums and other expenses afloat.

So not only are the owners asking that their employees put themselves on the line two more times a year in a sport that’s been described by some as a glorified car accident, but they now expect them to take a pay-cut? In most businesses, more work means more money—but not in the minds of NFL owners.

What’s more surprising is the league’s insistence that fans are in strong support of 18 regular season games. In fact, it has been Roger Goodell’s mantra over the entire season. But a recent poll taken by the Associated Press during Super Bowl week shows a staunch disagreement to this claim.

When the AP polled over 1,000 people (485 identified themselves as football fans), only 27 percent stated that they favored an 18-game regular season. And those 485 football fans that were supposedly rabid for more football? Apparently the 18 percent who favored Goodell’s 18-game proposal is enough for him to claim strong support.

Polls like this are no fluke. Fans like you and me may gripe about watching uneventful preseason games in August, but we would have a lot more to complain about if every week one of the league’s star players tears his ACL and is lost for the season. All of this for a little more money in the owner’s pockets?

The NFL claims that fans do not want to see uncompetitive preseason games and wants to get right to the important ones. While waiting for the NFL to restart after a six-month offseason can be somewhat unbearable, there is a reason for that excitement.

It’s not a league full of monotonous, lethargic regular season play like the NBA and MLB often is. The NFL is a league where almost every year, every game counts for something.

But as recently as 2009, the league was in trouble with fans because too many teams were resting their starters during the last two weeks of the year because they had locked up their playoff seeds. Commissioner Roger Goodell angrily insisted that teams don’t rest players and forced the league to schedule divisional opponents for the last week of the season to prevent such actions.

If there are meaningless games being played in a 16-game schedule every few years, then it’s almost a certainty that there will be two, maybe three games every year in an 18-game schedule where the results have no effect on either team’s seasonal positioning. Does the league want that?

I ask the NFL owners to bear with me on this. Yes, the preseason can be boring and uncompetitive but that does not mean it is unnecessary. Fans like me put up with the preseason because we know that it’s vital to the players’ tune-up for the brutal grind of a 16-game schedule.

We accept and love the NFL for its “every game matters” format and exciting regular season action that leads to even better postseason play. It’s not fair to demand the players to give everything they have and then some, so that owners can keep their consistent cash flow.

The NFL survived the greatest recession in recent history. The league regularly breaks TV rating records with each coming season and dwarfs every other sport in comparison along the way. There’s plenty of money, plenty of TV coverage and, as of now, plenty of fans.

More games would mean more money for a few. But the costs will be shorter, more punishing careers for players, with less reward. And the people who adore this game and its players will be disappointed with a diluted product, soiled by people who never don the jersey on any given Sunday.