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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Pro Football's Dirty Laundry

Read this article and wonder whether the price of your favorite sport is worth it.

The NFL is the favorite sport in the U.S. The revenues are astounding. It makes a ton of money, sells lots of merchandise, and has many Americans build their weekend schedules around the games of their favorite teams.

But it also has a dark side -- the toll it takes on the health of the men who play it. (I just finished reading John Feinstein's excellent book on a season he spent with the Baltimore Ravens, called "Next Man Up", and among other things this book illustrates the toll that weekly collisions take on the bodies of NFL players. Most teams are pretty banged up by week 10, with many players playing the last third or so of the season with injuries. One of the reasons, especially for those who aren't superstars, is that there's always someone ready to take your place and to be the "next man up").

The linked article tells of the maladies that many older alumni of the NFL are suffering from and the fact that they don't have the funds to pay for their care. Hall of Famer Willie Wood, for example, is in an assisted living facility thanks to the fact that some of his fellow former players, among them Mike Ditka, are paying for his care. Many have trouble walking, have neurological problems, suffer from dementia, etc. That's a high price to pay for being a football hero.

This problem is a submarine, and from all reports, a nuclear one at that. Which means that when it fully surfaces and the studies are published, the numbers, in my estimation, won't look pretty and the problem will be radioactive. (For those with little knowledge of the history of football, President Teddy Roosevelt stepped in a few times during his administration to examine the game, given the number of deaths that were occuring on the field during the turn of the 20th century. ). Hopefully, the NFL will do the right thing, look into this (as opposed to bury it, because what industry really wants Congress to make rules for them if they can avoid it?) and come up with a comprehensive post-retirement (whether voluntary or involuntary) program for players that helps ensure good medical care and the ability to get that care with dignity.

That's what the NFL should do. What it will do is another story. The players' union is getting heat for this problem too, but its resources seem rather strapped as it is, and it hasn't enjoyed the success that the baseball players' union has (read: not as much money). I'm no expert in pension or fiduciary laws, but it could well be that absent a vote of its leadership and a significant alteration of its policies, the union is hard-strapped to provide the financial aid that some of these former players need. Alternatively, it doesn't have the resources to pay for all of these players' problems. That shouldn't be a surprise, because my guess is that there are hundreds of former NFL players with lingering serious health problems that derived from on-field or in-practice injuries.

And that could mean eight figures' worth of money in annual care for that group of people.

I'm not sure how much the fans care. First, they view the league and players as wealthy, so they don't want this to become their problem. They want the sausage, they don't want to see how it's made or what gets thrown out after it's made. Second, we live in a disposable society. True, we'll miss the Pro Bowler when he blows out all knee ligaments, but we'll look for opportunities, because the coming of age of the undrafted free agent from Occidental or Mount Union might be the story of the year. Even former players will tell you that they ignored teammates who were injured. Said Mark Schlereth, former Pro Bowl guard with the Redskins and Broncos, "when a guy got hurt, he was dead to us." Americans like the new thing, the hot team, the top-notch players. True, we like to see the heroes of yesteryear, but not the broken down players with their problems. That's now how we want or choose to remember them, and, hey, we've all got problems. Why, the reasoning goes, should we really care about their maladies? They made great money for what they did, they knew the risks going into it, and the NFL has tons of the money to solve the problem. Or so the thinking goes.

Of course I do think fans care. They just don't think about this type of thing all that much unless the papers pay a good deal of attention to it. And they're starting to. My guess is that they'll want the NFL to do what's right financially and take care of these men, without whom the game they love wouldn't exist. But is that enough?

Here are a few suggestions for the NFL:

1. Expand rosters to 61 players per team and let them all dress and play. Yes, that will cost you more money in salaries, staff, equipment, etc., but that will ensure that you'll have enough healthy players that guys won't have to play hurt or at least very hurt. You can eliminate the developmental squads here (8 players who can work out with you, but who aren't solely property of your team in that another team can spirit them away if they sign them to their active rosters -- this system doesn't reward a team for excellent scouting). Right now, teams have 53 players total on their active rosters, but only 45 can dress for a game, and then they have their 8-man developmental squads).

2. Eliminate the bad option of requiring an NFL team to put a player on season-ending injured reserve when hurt or keep him on the active roster, hoping for a return in 8 weeks, without having the ability to put a healthy player on the roster. Create 2-, 4-, 6- and 8-week disabled lists, akin to the way baseball does it. This should enable teams to sign free agents to fill open slots, let's players mend the way they need to and lets fresher players into the mix (this will help save wear and tear on everyone).

3. Spend meaningful money on studies regarding head, spinal and orthopedic injuries. Share the studies willingly and talk about them candidly. Put money into training and product development. For example, if players can recover much more quickly by sleeping in oxygen tents, perhaps each player should be issued one. Whether he uses it or not during the season is up to him. Also, require teams to submit, confidentially within the league, medical files on all players to those who are studying these injuries. I am sure that some great researchers could mine all sorts of gems from this data.

4. Monitor the health of former players. This is a hard one because this would have to be voluntary, but I'd urge the players' union to do the best it can here, and former players should realize that they're helping future ones by what could be learned from their data. Naturally, former players can't be forced into this, but they should want to do this so long as confidentiality of their particular conditions could be assured. Again, the information that could be mined from this data could lead to tremendous innovations in care while a player is playing and after retirement.

5. Insist upon uniformity of turf at each NFL stadium. The turf at Vet Stadium in Philadelphia several years ago, for example, was a bad joke and thought by many to be dangerous. There's so much money in this league, all teams should use the same turf, the spongy, artificial type that seems to have more give than even natural grass. Anyone who watched late-season games at some of the natural grass stadiums around the league saw how torn up the natural turf could get.

6. Put away significant funds to pay for the health care of former players. Whether that's a league item or a union function is open to debate, but the present state is not acceptable.

The NFL and the players' union have a problem and need to take action. There are many great people on both sides who can solve this problem before it gets worse.

And it's already pretty bad.

If you're a fan, remember this, that the cost of the collisions, of people getting "all jacked up", of quarterback sacks and defensive backs running into kickoff wedges are the litany of former players with disabling injuries. Yes, relatively speaking, all players are well paid, while only a small percentage of them make enough money to be set for life. Which means, when they're done, they're faced with a life trying to make a living at something where they can't use their best talents -- playing football -- because at a very early age they've exhausted their earning power from those talents. And the average former player will do so knowing to some degree that he'll face big medical bills in the future.

Think it's great to be a football hero?

Maybe it is.

But not forever.

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