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The Superbowl Is Over, But the Biggest Fight in Football Is About to Kick off

This time it’s not Packers v. Steelers. It’s Workers v. Bosses.

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The owners argue that while the players’ percentage will decline, the amount the players receive will not if they agree to another of the owners’ demands: extending the regular season to 18 regular games. The current schedule has 16 regular season games, up from 14 in 1977 and 12 in 1960.

Another issue is whether to cap the rookie’s pay scale and if so, what to do with the money saved. Both the players and the owners agree that there should be a rookie pay cap. But the players want half of the estimated $200 million in savings put toward retired players and the other half toward veteran players. The owners want all of that money.

Most people appear to favor the players in this labor dispute, at least at the moment, but now that the season is over, fan reaction will likely be muted.

The media so far is describing the labor battle as millionaires fighting billionaires. And it is true that the median salary across the NFL is a handsome $1.4 million a year. The rookie minimum is $310,000. But the length of an average NFL player’s career is only 3.6 years. And even a short career takes a heavy toll on the body.

The owners watch from cushy seats in heated skyboxes. The players are engaged in a violent game played on a cold, hard field. In 2010, 350 players were on the injured reserve list for an average of nine and a half games. At the Superbowl we watched Packer star cornerback Charles Woodson exit the game with a broken collarbone, Packers cornerback Sam Shields leave with an injured shoulder and Steeler star receiver Emmanuel Sanders sit out almost the whole game with a foot injury. Green Bay’s quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, has suffered two concussions this year. The announcers noted he now wears a special helmet.

Each professional football player now has a l0 percent chance of suffering from a concussion in a given season. Mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI), the medical term for concussions, has become the most common specified type of injury in pro football, occurring nearly twice as often as hamstring strains.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that l5 percent of patients diagnosed with MTBI experienced disabling problems on a “persistent” basis. The long-term health risks associated with NFL injuries include a significantly increased likelihood of Alzheimer’s or dementia. A 1994 study of 7000 former players by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that football linemen have a 52 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population.

Essentially, the quality of life of an ex-football player is likely to be diminished from his life on the field. Even more damning, the quantity of his life will also be diminished. The average NFL player who plays for more than five years has a life expectancy of 55 years. If he is a lineman this drops to 52 years. U.S. life expectancy overall is 77.6 years.

To my knowledge, there have been no studies of the life expectancy of NFL owners. But since life expectancy is correlated with wealth it is likely they’ll live longer than most of us.

Since a professional football player’s tenure is so short and the probability of debilitating injury so high, a key issue affecting the quality of life of a professional football player is the level of medical benefits and pension. NFL pensions are skimpy. The pensions are vested only after four years and as we have seen, the average player’s career lasts only 3.6 years. Even long-term players receive little, especially in comparison to other professional sports leagues like major league baseball. According to former cornerback Bernie Parrish, Major League Baseball has average pension benefits that are three times higher than those offered by the NFL: $36,700 average vs. $12,165.

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