NFL injury rates and the 18-game season

Why not add two games a year to the NFL regular season schedule? It’s a fair question, since the four preseason games that teams gouge season ticket holders for are almost universally considered excessive. The owners want to keep the total games at 20, but they are strongly in favor of moving two of the preseason time-wasters into profitable, full-stadium affairs. There’s really only one problem with that.

Well, make that two problems. The first is that players are already banged up and aching as the season wears to its close. Adding two more games is forcing players who are already injured, worn down and/or hurting to put themselves in a situation that can end their careers two more times each year, and ownership has been far less exuberant about talking compensation for the players for those two extra games.

 The owners need the additional revenue, and they’re being coy about how that would influence contracts. Moreover, the owners are not going to be bound to contracts that they and the player have signed for games or years that the player can’t perform in due to those injuries. As long as the owners aren’t on the hook for the money that will never be paid to the injured players as they would be in other sports, they have no particular reason not to push for the expansion of the season to 18 games. After all, who can it hurt?

Besides the players, of course. The players who are, yearly, getting bigger, stronger, faster and who hit harder. How much harder? Ask the Associated Press:

In a report released Friday called "Dangers of the Game of Football," the NFLPA says injuries increased from 3.2 to 3.7 per week per team and the share of players injured increased to 63 percent compared to a 2002-09 average of 59 percent.

The report also shows that 13 percent of all injuries required players to be placed on injured reserve this season, compared to an average of 10 percent for 2002-09. The union says that indicates the injuries are more serious than in past years.

The total number of injured players is also the highest it’s ever been, and the players aren’t getting smaller - quite the opposite. The last draft class had, for example, the largest players in history at the offensive line positions as a whole, something that I'd noted at the time. The New York Times added this article on the increase in the size of linemen. The following quote sums it up:

Forty-four years ago, when the Packers won Super Bowl I, their largest players weighed 260 pounds. As Green Bay prepares to face Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV, 13 players on the Packers’ active roster weigh 300 or more pounds, reflecting a trend over the past several decades in which players have become as supersized as fast-food meals.

While the linemen are getting bigger, the rest of the player positions are getting faster and stronger. That leads to an inevitable outcome, and the laws of physics are immutable. There will be more collisions at higher mass and higher speed, and the human frame is still limited. The injury rates over time will continue to rise. It’s a non-secret that most folks try to avoid dealing with, including many of the players. 

The number of players on injured reserve in the 2010 season was 464. It’s the highest in the game’s history, as far as we know. So, in accordance with the above figures, that’s at least another 7.4 injuries per season, per team. With the rate of injury and the rate of severity of those injuries rising you’re essentially asking an average of one player per team to give up their careers with no future compensation. There might be an ‘injury settlement’, but right now those are also heavily weighted toward the owners. It’s a can’t-lose proposition. 

Unless, of course, you’re one of the guys who won’t have a career the following season. If the owners are serious about expanding the schedule, it’s time that they showed publicly how they would expand the rosters to permit greater player rotation, to reduce overall injury rates and how they would compensate players who are too injured to play - that season, and for the life of the player’s contracts.  How they will contribute to the retired players fund. How they will honor the contracts that at this point are something of a joke, an excuse to demand a certain level of performance from the players while voiding the contract at their leisure if they don’t like what they see. Or, if the player can’t walk, run, tackle or throw due to injury. The numbers cited only deal with publicly reported injuries. Teams have fudged on them ever since they were required to disclose them. Players don’t report many of their injuries for fear of losing their jobs, so the actual rates may be considerably higher.  

From the same NYT article:

Various studies indicate that current N.F.L. players are at a greater risk than the general population for high blood pressure and that retired players are more prone toobesity, sleep apnea and metabolic syndrome: conditions like elevated blood pressure, insulin and cholesterol levels and excessive body fat around the waist that together heighten the risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Retired linemen have been linked to higher mortality rates than the general public. 

“I just can’t see how they can be healthy,” said Dr. Charles Yesalis, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus of health and human development at Penn State. “Yes, some may be 280 pounds of muscle, but then they carry 40 pounds of fat. It just overworks your heart. It puts a strain on your joints. You have the whole issue of concussive injuries.

So far, the campaign to expand the season appears to be well on its way to financial success for the ownership, who are fighting a limited market and dealing with a desire for their pie to continue to increase, a problem that Ted Bartlett put into stark clarity in his article yesterday. But their responsbilities to the players or to the public? Still no word on that. 

What a surprise.

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