BY MICHAEL MACCAMBRIDGE
There are 162 regular-season games in a full season of baseball, 82 in the NBA and the NHL, 38 in England’s Premier League, 34 in Major League Soccer and the WNBA, 24 in the National Women’s Soccer League, 22 in the UK’s Premiership Rugby league, and 18 in the National Lacrosse League. It’s not a coincidence that all those figures, across all those sports, are all even numbers. Because one of the first principles of fairness in professional sports is that teams competing have an equal number of home and road games. It’s basic, fundamental component of virtually all leagues.
Except, it seems, the National Football League.
Starting in 2021, in all likelihood, the NFL will move to a 17-game regular season, as permitted in the new collective bargaining agreement signed in March, meaning some teams will have eight home games and some will have nine. In a league whose competition thrives on fine margins, the resulting advantage or disadvantage could be significant.
But for reasons that go far beyond that, the near-inevitable move to a 17-game regular season next year strikes me as the single most troubling competitive change the league has made in more than 30 years, at least since the decision, in the midst of the 1987 strike, to use replacement players to play games that would count in the standings.
This latest move was not exactly buried but also didn’t get a lot of attention when the latest extension to the CBA was announced. The addition of a seventh playoff team in each conference (starting this season) seemed to get more coverage, but I’m convinced that a 17th regular season game will have a more profound effect on the league.
The 17th game is the product of the league’s architects putting an unending desire for more revenue ahead of every other potential consideration, including safety, competitive balance, optics, and common sense. The change is, in a word, dispiriting.
Over the past fortnight, I’ve talked with more than a half-dozen football people whose opinions I respect—two Super Bowl-winning former coaches, two owners, two general managers and a longtime league executive (many of whom asked that their comments be off the record or not for attribution)—and not a single person seemed enthusiastic about the 17th game, each of them recognizing that the change happened for one reason only.
“I don’t see the rationale for it other than it brings in more revenue,” said Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy. “And I think that’s why the players agreed to it, that’s why the owners want it. It’s not something, I don’t think, the fans are demanding. I think people love our regular season, because the games are meaningful. I could understand maybe expanding the playoffs, but to add an odd number of regular-season games makes zero sense to me.”
Even the two owners I spoke to, who supported a 17th game, seemed wholly unenthusiastic, citing the need for more revenue.
“Do I prefer it for the game? I do not,” said one.
As the former Ravens coach and NFL Network analyst Brian Billick put it, after talking with dozens of coaches over the past couple of months, “I’ve not heard of anybody who likes it.”
There are so many things to dislike about a 17-game schedule, and many unintended consequences that could ensue, but I think the biggest concern involves player safety, both the reality and the perception of it.
The greatest problem pro football has faced this century is what to do about the physical trauma that the game exerts on players. There is still much research to be done, and the answers are not as clear-cut as the film “Concussion” would have you believe (read Ingfei Chen’s story in the New Yorker from earlier this year). But it remains an existential challenge that has to be faced at every level of football, from Pop Warner to the NFL.
The one thing we already know is that the players who put their bodies on the line every week are taking significant risks which can and often will affect their long-term health. Because of the riches the game offers and the powerful sense of camaraderie it can provide, it’s a risk they willingly take. Without knowing exactly what the long-term effects are, the risk/reward ratio remains necessarily murky.
But surely the answer is NOT to play more games. The NFL has been bewildering, and at times tone-deaf, on this issue for years. Before offering up a 17-game schedule, Commissioner Roger Goodell and other league leaders floated the idea of an 18-game schedule, while reducing the preseason to two games. This, then, is a half-measure in the wrong direction.
“It’s duplicitous,” said Billick. “We hear ‘safety safety safety’ from the owners, and then how do you justify adding another game now?”
One owner I spoke to gamely made the case that, with the preseason likely cut from four games to three, teams would still be playing 20 games across the preseason and regular season. But that argument doesn’t hold up to scrutiny; veterans rarely play in the preseason, so they are trading a game they aren’t playing in for one that they will. Another owner noted that there are far fewer days of contact in practice and training camp than a decade ago, which is certainly true. But there’s also no contact like game contact, and a 17th game adds to that.
What I think those in the league—both players and owners—are missing is the way this move sends a mixed message to fans concerned about safety, and breeds a kind of cynicism, making those concerns expressed by both players and owners at least sound hollow.
“I don’t want to hear another word from the players complaining about health issues,” said one rabid fan I know, after the deal was ratified. Indeed, it seems inexplicable that an NFLPA keenly aware of all the issues involving player safety would recommend their membership add games to an already staggering workload.
My guess is the NFL and the NFLPA settled on a solution no one likes because neither side was confident a more reasonable solution could be hammered out in the months ahead. There seems to be a lack of trust on both sides.
So the owners gave the players a package in which a 17th game was tied to more jobs and more benefits, but essentially made clear that it was a take-it-or-leave-it proposal, and the NFLPA accepted, albeit by a narrow margin (1,019 to 959). The rules that will govern football for the next decade—especially one adding a game to the schedule—should have had more than 52% support of the players.
I understand the desire to grow the game, and the quest for more revenue. But even here, there was a safer, more sensible alternative. What the 17th game will do is add an 18th week of “inventory” for the networks. But the league could have done the same thing and still kept the schedule at 16 games, simply by giving each team in the league a second bye week. If that had been done, it could have been accompanied by a stipulation that the additional bye week would always fall before each team’s Thursday night game, so no team was ever taking the field on three days’ rest. (The Players Association, I’m told, has been opposed to a bye week prior to a Thursday game, because then players don’t get a full week off, although that could be legislated as well.)
One owner insisted there’s no data to suggest injuries occur at a higher rate in the Thursday night games. But the fact remains that many fans perceive the Thursday games as poorly played, and almost all players hate playing on the short week.
“What’s the physical toll?,” asks Billick about the Thursday games on short rest. “I don’t think you can quantify the cumulative effect.”
At the root of all this is the unloved institution of preseason games, which are baked into the NFL’s economic model. You could write a graduate thesis on the decline of exhibition games in American sports. Remember the College All-Star Game that used to begin the football schedule? Remember when Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game was the biggest sports event of the summer? Remember when people used to care about the Pro Bowl? (More recently, do you remember when people used to tackle at the Pro Bowl?)
It’s not too late. The league could still decide to stay at 16 games. But no one in football thinks they will. And whether you’re an NFL owner, an NFL player or an NFL fan, that’s a negative development.
The next TV contracts will be bigger, but the game won’t be better, the players won’t be safer, the regular season won’t be more compelling, and the league’s stranglehold on its position as America’s most popular sport will not be solidified.
To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca,” if the NFL goes to a 17-game schedule, the caretakers of the league will regret it. Maybe not in ’21 or ’22 but soon, and for the rest of their lives.
Dungy sees the writing on the wall. Invoking George Young, the Hall of Fame Giants GM and later league executive, Dungy recalled, “George Young used to always talk about, when we’d have a rule change, that ‘the camel is getting its nose under the tent,’ and when we let the camel’s nose get under the tent, nothing good can happen; the tent is eventually gonna tip over, right? And there will be talk in a couple of years about an 18th game, and then there’ll be talk about a 19th game. And so I would have fought it a little harder as a player. But, in the end, the owners won out by telling them how much more revenue they could make.”