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League, Players at Odds Over Expanded NFL Season

Jun 16, 2010 – 5:04 PM
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Dan Graziano

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Ravens LB Ray Lewis isn't laughing over the idea of an expanded NFL regular season.NFL owners decided to use Wednesday's negotiating session with the players union to present their idea for expanding the regular season as early as 2012. We know this because, while the league and the union have been secretive about aspects of prior negotiating sessions, the owners decided to make this aspect of this one public. Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy told FanHouse in a phone interview that the league believes this is an idea on which owners and players can agree, and that bringing it up will help forge a new collective bargaining agreement.

But the players don't feel the same way. Citing concerns over increased health and injury risks, the union and some of its high-profile members seem to be taking issue with the idea of the expanded season and the fact that the owners decided to take the idea public.

"I know our fans may not like preseason games and I don't like all of them," Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said in a statement released by the NFLPA. "But swapping two preseason games for two end-of-season games -- when players already play hurt -- comes at a huge cost for the player and the team."

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady also chimed in, via the union's website, voicing his concern over the owners' idea of eliminating two preseason games and adding two regular-season games.

"I've taken part in several postseason runs where we have played 20 games," Brady's statement read. "The long-term impact this game has on our bodies is well documented. Look no further than the players that came before we did. Each player today has to play three years in order to earn five years of post-career health care. Our union has done a great job of raising the awareness on these issues and will make the right decision for us players, the game and the fans."

Murphy, who is a member of the owners' negotiating team and was at Wednesday's session, said the league's proposal for expanding the season would include several factors, including adjustments to roster size, the injured reserve rule that currently requires a player to miss the rest of the season if placed on IR, and the establishment of a developmental league.

"One of the flip sides is, how do you develop younger players when you've eliminated preseason games in which younger players get a chance to play and develop?" Murphy said. "And one of the thoughts is to create a developmental league. We think it would be good for the young players, good for the union and good for the league."

Murphy said the idea for what the NFL has dubbed the "enhanced season" was presented to the players Wednesday as a "concept" that included "a pretty detailed analysis" but in terms of the specifics of the developmental league, adjustments to off-season workout schedules and other elements was more of a discussion than a negotiation.

"This is something that has really gained momentum among the owners," Murphy said. "As you look across everything we do as a league in terms of quality, the quality in preseason games is not high, and we get a lot of complaints from fans. This would be an opportunity to give our fans more value."

Of course, so would cutting ticket and parking prices for preseason games that the league admits are of substandard quality. But it's been clear for some time that commissioner Roger Goodell favors the idea of an 18-game season, which is the reason it's "gaining momentum" among owners -- kind of like the way the new overtime proposal gained momentum once Goodell threw his support behind it.

Murphy said the expanded regular season wouldn't go into effect until 2012 at the earliest because it would have to be negotiated not just with the players but also with the league's TV broadcast partners. And while it sounds like something the owners intend to do whether the players like it or not, the union intends to make an issue of getting some concessions in return. If they're expected to work more games and more hours, they'll expect to get paid more. And as the quotes from Lewis and Brady indicated, the players don't believe the owners are taking into account the increased health risk the expanded season would represent.

"We have the same concerns the players do," Murphy insisted. "But the concern about injuries, we have that whether they're playing 16 games or 18 games."

The players' point is that preseason games aren't played at the same level of intensity as regular-season games, that players with minor injuries can skip preseason games in order to heal because those games don't count, and that players aren't expected to play all four quarters of preseason games. So it's not as simple as exchanging two preseasons games for two regular-season games.

But Murphy and the owners were putting a sunny face on the idea Wednesday, which makes you think it's something they've decided to go ahead and do regardless.

"We view it as an opportunity to help us reach a new collective bargaining agreement with the players," Murphy said. "It's an opportunity to grow the game, and everybody would benefit from that."

From the sounds of things, though, this doesn't sound like it's going to bring the sides closer to an agreement. If anything, at this point, it seems to be giving them something else over which to fight.
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