The costs of adding that 17th NFL game

When the NFL began its successful push last year to expand the regular season to 17 games — starting Thursday night in Tampa with the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers facing the Dallas Cowboys  — Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwell reassured everyone who had concerns about adding more work to a dangerous profession.

“The health/safety data plays out that we can do 17 games and it’s not going to impact the safety and the health of the players,” Bidwell told Arizona Sports 98.7. “I am really proud of the work the league is doing in terms of the health and safety. A lot of big strides have been made.”

You mean big strides from the time that the league hid the “health/safety data” from players that showed the damage being done to their bodies and brains?

There is no honest “data” that says the danger isn’t going to go up when players, who are at risk every time they step on the field, are asked to play one more game. Ask factory workers who work 50 hours a week or more instead of 40.

But Bidwell’s comments are supposed to make fans feel better about what’s really important — another chance for the dedicated fan to get right with a new NFL-sponsored legal bookie.

Bidwell went on to say that, “We’ll see where the players land.”

The players. Their “partners.”

Bidwell’s comments remind me of what sportswriter Jimmy Cannon once wrote about boxing:

“You share everything in the fight racket but the punches. You have no partners in pain. They don’t sue you to be in with the beatings. They never give you a contract which entitles them to a percentage of the blows. They allow you that. You don’t have to hire an attorney to guarantee you the right to take a licking all by yourself.”

The NFL owners won’t share in the pain. They won’t share in the brain damage. They won’t get a percentage of the body blows. They’ll let the players have that all to themselves.

The argument that the new regular season game just replaces the exhibition game the owners dropped?

Sorry, that one falls apart. No one shows up for that game — not the high-paying guests in the owner’s box and not the high-paid players teams can’t afford to see hurt in the preseason.

Modern football may be “safer” by some measures — especially since the old measures often boiled down to criminal deceit — a dark conspiracy on the part of owners to grind up players and then toss them aside to spend their remaining days in pain and confusion.

Today, those players are the owners’ “partners.”

“It’s odd to me, and it’s always odd, when you hear player safety is their biggest concern … but it seems like player safety has a price tag,” 49ers cornerback and NFL Players Association representative Richard Sherman said when the schedule expansion was still being considered. “Player safety, up to the point of, ‘Hey, 17 games makes us this much money, so we really don’t care how safe they are.”

Most of Sherman’s colleagues don’t earn, as he has, $80 million over a 10-year NFL career. Most are not media stars in waiting. Most are fighting for their jobs every training camp in a career that lasts an average of four years. So they went along with the season expansion.

Here’s some explanation of the additional money for the added risk, from ESPN: “Starting in 2021, the players will get at least 48 percent of all league revenue, and that figure could get higher depending on how the league does in negotiating new TV deals. Once the league moves to a 17-game season, the players’ share of revenue includes a ‘media kicker,’ which constitutes an additional share of revenue based on the size of the TV contracts.”

With the billions at stake, that sounds lucrative, right? And it’s understandable why players agreed to the extra game. But what are the potential costs to player safety over the course of a lifetime? No one really knows.

I’d ask Tunch Ilkin, the former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman who played 14 years in the league. But I can’t. He just died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease — the progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.

Chris Nowinski, the co-founder and executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation at Boston University, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that NFL players are at four times greater risk than the general population to get ALS.

Dwight Clark, the legendary 49ers receiver, died of ALS in 2018. He wasn’t just a player suspicious of the league. He was management — vice president of player personnel for the San Francisco 49ers and director of football operations for the Cleveland Browns.

Before he died, Clark wrote that he suspected he suffered from ALS because of football.

“I’ve been asked if playing football caused this,” Clark wrote. “I don’t know for sure. But I certainly suspect it did.”

So how many games does it take to trigger such a debilitating illness? One more per season over the course of a career? The NFL doesn’t know. Michael Bidwill doesn’t know. But you don’t have to be in some lab in Boston cutting open the brains of dead NFL players to know that the chance for more hits, more blows, more damage increases the odds that your brain will wind up in that lab.

But don’t tell that to the players’ “partners,” the owners. They’re watching and plotting from their luxury boxes. They’re already working on adding that 18th game.

You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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