By Joseph Santoliquito
I once had an editor tell me about 15 years ago that I’ll never make it big in the sports media business–because … “you care too much about the players that you cover. You better learn that they’re just pieces on a chessboard and nothing more. They don’t matter. They’re interchangeable parts. One star player goes down, there’s always going to be someone else who replaces them. Once you get that through your thick head, you’ll be OK.”
I remember it because it’s a quote that now hangs laminated over my office desk.
Well, that editor (who’s no longer in the business) was right about one thing–I do have a very thick head (as anyone who knows me will attest). The other stuff, I’m not so sure about. You cover something long enough, you build relationships. You get to know the players and coaches beyond being players and coaches–or as just pieces on a chessboard. Ask anyone in the sports media who’s been on the beat for a while. They’ll all tell you the same thing: You see these players in a different light. They become more than interchangeable pieces. They become real. They become tangible. You can’t help it.
And by being close humanizes the players you see every Sunday buried under the helmets and pads. TV shows you the game. Though it rarely shows you the Monday-morning pain.
It’s an unimaginable pounding these athletes go through–especially in football. Especially in the NFL. NFL football is a sport onto itself. Light years different from major college football. Galaxies away from the high school level. NFL football is the most physically demanding sport there is–other than boxing, which I know a little about. Tailbacks in their 20s who could run through a car wash without getting wet are suddenly hobbled, limping wrecks by the time they’re in their mid-30s. Huge behemoth linemen who just by the sight of them could stir fear are reduced to mountainous masses of walking pain as they reach midlife. It’s like the punch-drunk fighters I see occasionally, who I once covered not that long ago, slurring their words and walking awkwardly.
Maybe it’s the vision of watching former Pittsburgh Steeler great Mike Webster struggle mightily from his countless NFL wars to even get up from a Philadelphia hotel lobby chair that causes me to be vehemently against the newly proposed 18-game NFL schedule. Maybe it’s seeing the grind and anguish of guys I once covered in high school, the toil they’ve put their bodies through in the NFL, that makes me queasy when thinking about what future NFL players will endure over three or four 18-game NFL regular seasons.
The career expectancy of an average NFL player is short to begin with. Scientific research recently has shown that, consequently, so is the life expectancy of NFL players who’ve committed years to the game. So what does an 18-game schedule do? It shortens not only playing careers, but could also potentially shorten lives.
According to the National Football League Players’ Association, the average career of an NFL player is 3.52 seasons. That’s playing a 16-game schedule. Tacking on two additional games of blunt head-force trauma, plus the NFL grinding on knees and joints and that could potentially be reduced to 2 1/2 years. According to a number of studies, for every season the average NFL player plays, he loses two to three years off his life expectancy. The average NFL retiree, depending on their position, lives to between 53 and 59-years-old.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average U.S. man lives to 75. You do the math.
Why no one is railing against this is beyond me. But some won’t let the 18-game idea (which looks like an eventuality) slide under the radar that quietly.
“When it comes to the punishment of the game, it’s something a lot of people aren’t willing to admit or want to turn away from,” said former Eagle and NFL great Cris Carter, now an analyst for ESPN. “What a player goes through physically in the NFL is unlike any other professional sport. The average NFL player has a short career expectancy. Making the season longer, shortens that even more. Not only that, the life expectancy of an NFL player is also short, in comparison to the general public. What you’re putting your body through is war. My partner Tom Jackson goes through hell. He has pins in his shoulders and his knees ache from all the games he played. I don’t think it’s something the guys calling the shots for the NFL on Park Avenue are thinking about. The 16-game schedule is perfect the way it is. NFL football is the most popular game in America today. Why mess with that model?”
Moving to an 18-game schedule also potentially dilutes the fantastic product the NFL is today. Rosters would expand with players who wouldn’t sniff an NFL roster five years ago. Sure, paychecks will be fatter, though the time players would have to cash those checks might not last long.
When speaking to a number of media that cover the NFL locally, regionally and nationally, the feeling is that the move to an 18-game schedule will happen and there’s nothing that can stop it–regardless of the additional pounding and the reduced quality of life these players may have in the future. What was even more disturbing in my travels was what some national media member said concerning the move: “Why should the average fan care, they’re not the ones taking the pounding on their knees and head. They want their NFL fix. NFL football is big business. More games means more revenue. It’s a no brainer.”
And the words I heard 15 years ago began ringing in my head again … maybe it’s why the national guy is where he is.