Super Bowl XLV has come and passed. The Vince Lombardi Trophy has returned home to Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers and the world-champion Packers.
With the season concluded, and the victor exalted, it is about time we began to look at the biggest NFL story of the season, and in fact of the past several years. This story is not one of downfield bombs, fingertip catches or inspired carries. It’s not a story of crunching tackles, or goal-line stands. It’s not even a story of concussions or dogfighters-turned-Pro-Bowlers. This is a simple story about working men.
On March 3, the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL Players Association and the owners expires. The CBA is a legal agreement between the players and the owners that establishes minimum salaries and requires the teams to fund player 401(k) accounts, player annuities, severance pay, pensions and disability funds. All too often our image of professional athletes is one of exorbitant salaries and privileged lifestyles, leading many to criticize their greed and excess. While this is certainly true of many star players, we must not forget that professional sports are first and foremost professions for the majority of athletes.
In 2008, the owners voted to opt out of the CBA, setting the imminent date for its expiration. While they cited a number of reasons, including reducing the league minimum salary, at the crux of the debate are two seemingly distinct but fundamentally linked issues: extending the regular season from 16 to 18 games and former-player insurance.
The owners seem to think that replacing the final two preseason games with regular season matchups will hardly inconvenience players (as they are already preparing for games in those weeks to begin with), while the games’ legitimacy will draw bigger crowds and television ratings, boosting franchise revenues. The NFLPA has vehemently resisted this effort, citing the obvious fact that preseason games are not as rough, that key starters play fewer minutes and that adding two weeks of strenuous preparation exacerbates the already-glaring issue of player safety in such a dangerous sport.
Given the striking number of concussions this season, it is evident that football is not getting any safer. Helmet-to-helmet tackling has become a standard, arbitrarily penalized at the whim of referees with no real consistency. This season alone, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison received nearly $200,000 in fines associated with helmet-to-helmet collisions — his trademark hit. The league has made a pitiful effort to address this issue, and the Player’s Association has good reason to be concerned by a longer season.
Moreover, concussions and other serious football injuries, such as damage to the spinal cord and vital organs, often result in lifelong injuries. In any profession, when employees sustain serious injuries on the job, we expect a substantial degree of liability to fall upon employers. If one’s profession happens to be slamming headfirst into 300-pound men, this should be a given.
The greedy owners, however, feel that it’s insufficient to simply ask these men to play a longer season — furthermore, they want decreased commitments to the former-player insurance program that pays players forced into early retirement due to serious injuries. So not only do the owners want to put players at further risk, but they want less responsibility for the injuries that inevitably will result.
Most media coverage on the expiring CBA has focused on the large possibility that the players and owners will be unable to reach a new bargaining agreement before the start of the 2011-’12 NFL season. The possibility of a lockout — players in the NFLPA will not play if they do not reach an agreement with the owners — has many fans so distraught that they are ignoring the central issue here.
While their salaries are substantially higher than the average salary of most other unionized workers, professional football players face the same type of exploitation. As we learn more and more about the long term brain damage that many players experience long after their league pensions expire, now is not the time for owners to demand fewer commitments while asking more from their athletes.
As fans of the game, we may be tempted into hoping that our beloved NFL season will last two weeks longer, but ultimately, while they are heroes to many of us, these are working men, not supermen.
Sam Goldsmith is a senior in Branford College.