The negotiations between the NFL and the NFLPA over a new collective bargaining agreement continue again this week during the combine. There are many issues the players are on the fence about, but their biggest concern is the number of games moving from 16 to 17 during the regular season. From the owners’ side, this is their No. 1 priority.
The league’s primary revenue stream is the media rights deals to distribute NFL content and games. Those TV deals are up soon and NFL owners want to renegotiate deals while the market is hot and the economy is roaring. When you add another game with the possibility of an extra bye week, that’s two more weeks of NFL action. That, plus two more playoff games, equals huge TV rights deals.
This is why the owners have put forth a CBA proposal with a more generous revenue split than in 2011: They understand the importance of getting a deal done before the presidential election and any potential economic impact from it. Thus, the push for 17 games is strong.
It’s also a major holdup in the CBA negotiations. Here’s why.
More games means more of an injury risk
Death, taxes, and getting injured in the NFL. Careers in the NFL are short-lived, relative to other jobs. The average NFL career is still sitting at just above three seasons, with attrition because of talent and, more frequently, injuries. There’s a 100 percent injury rate in the NFL. Multiple injuries, no matter how little or big, add up over time. And these injuries happen most often in games, due to high-leverage and high-impact reps.
No matter how you cut it, adding a 17th game would increase the risk of injuries, including head injuries. NFL players understand this, and I believe the owners do too. That’s why the NFL has proposed to increase minimum salaries, post-career benefits, and the roster size.
The NFL has also offered to change practice and the offseason program, same as it did for the 2011 CBA. The new proposal includes a five-day acclimation period for training camp, more off days, fewer days in pads, and less overall time in the facility between April and August.
I’m in a unique position. I played eight seasons in the NFL, three under the “old” CBA and my final five during the current CBA, which is set to expire after the 2020 season. I’ve seen firsthand the changes in the training camp schedule (no more two-a-days and more days off) and the offseason programs (fewer weeks and hours in the facility). It’s much easier on the body now, no doubt.
But, and listen closely, it has not lowered the NFL injury rate. In fact, most on the medical side would agree that less practice time has led to more in-game injuries because players’ bodies aren’t prepared to handle the immense physical toll of playing on Sundays.
NFL owners know they can persuade some players with the promise of less practice time for more games, but most retired players, including myself, would’ve taken more money for an increase in practice time.
While the goal of the NFL owners is to entice the players with less of everything before the regular season, I strongly believe this should not be one of the reasons NFL players decide on 17 games.
More money and health benefits are what players should fight for
Players see themselves as equals in this deal and moving to 17 games increases the risk of injury and a shortened career. They want more than what the owners are offering — 48.5 percent of the revenue split — to make it happen. I do believe an increase to 49 percent could get them to agree to 17 games, and 50 percent would surely get a deal done.
The one question mark is what else comes along with the 17 games? Are the increases in retirement benefits and minimum salaries tied to the 17-game proposal? Will those disappear if the players don’t agree to 17 games? If so, does getting better pay for younger players and more benefits for the retired players outweigh not getting up to 49 or 50 percent of the revenue split?
Some players would agree that it does. Taking care of the entire group is the goal of the union, and if sacrificing a percent or two gets the core players more money in their pockets, they’d be for it.
It’s also worth noting most players want their Week 17 pay to equal the rest of the season. As of now, the pay would be capped at $250,000 for that additional game. However, Peter King reported in his Football Morning in America column that individual players can request more from their teams for Week 17. Out of all requests for more money, this feels like it might be the easiest to get.
The other holdup is something I’ve discussed at length: health care benefits after the players’ careers are over. As of now, we have five years of health insurance after we retire. Players want more, especially since a 17th game and extra playoff games are more risk on the body.
The NFL has proposed changes to the current benefits of retired players, like building clinics in NFL cities for retired players to visit. That brings about questions, mostly about who’s paying for the services. The NFL? To players, this isn’t good enough and they want to know they are protected with insurance past those five years.
I’ve proposed this before, but a tiered system for health care would work. You play for four seasons, you receive five years of health care. Five seasons = seven years of health care, and so on. I do not expect owners to give players lifetime health insurance, and I doubt players expect this in negotiations.
If I had to guess, I believe NFL players will ultimately agree to the CBA this week after meeting in person with their reps and the league office. This deal has plenty of elements the majority of players want to agree to 17 games. But don’t be fooled: decreased practice time shouldn’t be one of them. The players need more benefits and more money. In the end, that is what they will remember in retirement.