Labor Issues On Roster For Upcoming NFL Season

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NFL players have been reporting to training camps around the country this week. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins Robert Siegel to discuss what's in store for the upcoming football season.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michel Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

National Football League training camps are opening around the country this week. Our own Stefan Fatsis played in one of them a few years back and he's with us to discuss what's happening as preparations begin for the 2010 NFL season. Hi, Stefan.


SIEGEL: And let's start with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who's making the rounds of training camps. Yesterday, I gather, he was in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

FATSIS: He was. He attended the shareholders meeting of the Green Bay Packers -the Packers, of course, the rare community-owned team in professional sports. And this was a favorable audience. The shareholders are fans and fans are loyal. They like Roger Goodell. The league and Goodell used it as an opportunity to take the Packers as an example of what we're going to be hearing a lot about in the next year labor negotiations. The message is that the NFL is in rocky financial shape, needs radical changes to its agreement with the players, its labor agreement.

Because it's publicly owned, the Green Bay team releases its financials and what they showed for the past year - declining operating profit, rising player costs, which are not necessarily surprising because of the way teams do accounting in the NFL. And the team did still show a net profit but these player-cost issues are going to be a big part of the NFL strategy as they press for significant reductions in how much overall league revenue goes to the players.

SIEGEL: Now, one big issue that the owners want is to add games to the regular season and they do that by shortening the exhibition season. What do the players say about that?

FATSIS: Players don't like this idea. The NFL wants to add two regular season games and swap it out for two preseason games. The owners are calling this an enhanced schedule, which it would be for the fans because almost everyone I've ever talked to in the NFL thinks that four preseason games, which is what they play now, is too many.

Training camp used to be about getting into shape, scraping off the rust from the off-season. Now it's about getting into football shape, readjusting to the sharp movements and the hitting of real games. But you don't need four games to do that. The starting players, the guys that we watch and follow, don't play in much in the preseason anyway.

The issue for the players becomes increased injuries and increased risk in the regular season when the best players play. They'd be trading that for a boost in their prorated pay. But the players right now are not willing to make that trade.

SIEGEL: Stefan, during the off-season there was much attention paid to concussions and their long-term effects on football players. Has the league responded to that in training camp this year?

FATSIS: It has. This week it was announced the league is going to be putting up a poster in all NFL training facilities. And it uses absolutely stark language for the first time to really bring home the message to players of the risks to their brains.

I'm going to read one sentence from the poster: Repetitive brain injury when not treated promptly and properly may cause permanent damage to your brain.

Alan Schwartz of The New York Times has done some groundbreaking reporting on this issue over the last couple of years, called it the most definitive statement of the cognitive risks of football. It uses words like depression and dementia. The NFL is acknowledging that this is as a byproduct of their dangerous game.

SIEGEL: But, Stefan, let's say I'm an NFL lineman and I'm making a million dollars to bang heads and bodies with the other team. I've been doing this in one way or another since I was a little kid. Is that announcement on the locker room wall going to, you know, lead me to say, coach, you know, I think I'd really rather take it a little easy out there this year?

FATSIS: No, they can't. And this is the inherent dichotomy in the NFL, you know. Your job is at risk every second you set foot on the field and the coaches are constantly telling you that you've got to play harder and be perfect or else you could be looking for work.

When I spent that summer with the Denver Broncos as a kicker to write a book about the NFL, you know, I learned this. The players are conscious of these risks, especially the ones to their head. But they have to suppress those feelings in order to go out there and do their jobs. That's not going to change because of a poster. But at least now the players have some information.

They are more conscious of the risks so that they can step back and think about their long-term futures if they sustained the kind of injury that in the past they may have tried to shrug off and get back on the field. And they can take the proper medical steps to insure that you minimize further damage.

SIEGEL: Okay, Stefan, any thought to coming out of retirement this season, by the way?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FATSIS: Not after that poster that's hanging in the locker room, I'll tell you that.

SIEGEL: Okay, that's Stefan Fatsis, author of "A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sports Writer Plays in the NFL," which is out in paperback. He joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports.

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