Brett Favre's record 292nd consecutive start ended Oct. 31 when New England Patriots defensive lineman Myron Pryor hit him in the mouth. The National Football League's three-time Most Valuable Player limped off the field at New England's Gillette Stadium with blood pouring from a laceration on his chin that required eight stitches to close, on an ankle already fractured in two places from a previous injury. "Going into the tunnel on the cart, I thought to myself for a brief second, 'What in the world am I doing?' " Favre told reporters afterward.
The Minnesota Viking's injury is among a rash of recent hits that have cast a spotlight on the violence inherent in America's most watched TV sport. At a time of mounting concern that NFL collisions may cause neurological disorders in some former players, this season's run of serious injuries has many players upset—though not for the reasons one might assume. What has the NFL Players Assn. miffed is the disconnect between team owners calling for more safety on the field while simultaneously asking the union in current contract negotiations to play longer and harder by adding games to the season.
"Everyone agrees the players have gotten bigger, faster, and stronger and the game is more dangerous and violent," says Gabriel Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University Law School in New Orleans. "It becomes more difficult for the owners to argue that on one hand we need to make the game safer, because players are getting hurt every time they go out there in the field, and then saying we want them on the field more often."
Owners say the existing collective labor agreement, originally intended to run until 2012, needs revising now since it fails to reflect the new cost pressures on the game, especially the costly construction and upgrades of stadiums in recent years. Owners propose extending the playing season to 18 games from 16, while halving the four-game preseason.
DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Assn., says the league's plan to extend the season should address post-career health care, pensions, and a workers' comp system that's fair to players, who have an average career length of 3½ years. Since 2006, an average of 415 players have ended the season on a list of players who are injured and unable to play, according to union data. Players receive five years of post-career benefits— but only after completing three seasons. One union concern: Adding two games per year would mean players need to play the equivalent of almost an extra half-season before they earn coverage, Smith says.
"If you're representing a group of food process workers and management comes in and says, 'hey, we're going to speed up the production line and we know that by speeding up the line, there's an increased risk of serious injury to the workers,' how does that factor in to what's a safe environment? What's the right compensation?" Smith asks. "If that happens in a traditional work environment, no one would be surprised if you started asking all those questions."
For now, the NFL is talking tough about safety. Last month, after a weekend rash of injuries in professional and college football, including a hit that paralyzed Rutgers University defensive lineman Eric LeGrand, the league fined three players a total of $175,000 and warned that even first-time offenders could be suspended for flagrant illegal hits.
Commissioner Roger Goodell distinguishes between health care and safety. "Health care is part of any discussion you have on collective bargaining," he told Bloomberg Television on Oct. 29. "The safety issues go way beyond that to me."
Still, even some injured players aren't saying football should be less raw. Former New York Jets quarterback Ray Lucas likens getting tackled in the NFL to getting hit by a truck—repeatedly. He says he suffered so much pain after his seven-year NFL career that he sank into depression and addiction and considered driving off the George Washington Bridge before having a three-inch steel plate implanted in his neck to ease the hurt. "The game is violent," Lucas says. "I played it. I loved it. I'm not saying take away from the violence of the sport. I'm saying take care of the players."
The bottom line: The NFL's recent public emphasis on safety on the field has become a divisive issue in its labor negotiations with the players' union.