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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers are getting ready for the Super Bowl, as are millions of pro football fans. This is, of course, the last game of the season. And it could be the last pro football game for even longer than that. We're going to talk about this with NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca.

Mike, good morning.

MIKE PESCA: Hello. How are you?

INSKEEP: Possibility of a work stoppage here.

PESCA: Yeah, there is a possibility. And I think both sides are maybe playing up how possible it is for their own interests. The situation is that by early March, the players union and the league itself should, by decree, have to have a deal done.

And everyone says they don't really even get to start to serious talking until all the ball is played. So after the Super Bowl, there's about a month to negotiate. Of course, everyone could extend that deal.

But if there's no deal done by early March, there are a lot of penalties that go into place. Revenue will be lost. Free agents can't be signed. So at least for a while, both sides should be on the hot seats, trying to get something done.

INSKEEP: So even though there are months and months and months before next season, there's a real deadline here. It is a legitimate pressure to get something finished.

PESCA: Yeah. And there are real legitimate issues, because football's unlike a lot of other sports. They are extremely economically healthy, but the way the players are compensated are a little different.

The first thing is that players don't have guaranteed contracts. So for any reason, they could cut any player and only have to give him his signing bonus. That makes football a little bit of a cruel sport, but it also gives the owners a lot of leeway. In a way, you could argue that it helps players, because it doesn't keep bad players on the payroll for years and years.

The way football splits its money, there's - all the money goes into the pot, and then the owners take a billion out. Isn't that nice to say? Wouldn't you like to work in that instance?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: From that point on, the players get almost 60 percent and the owners get 40 percent. And the owners would like to renegotiate that. I mean, the exact ways that the money is split isn't as important as the fact that the owners just want to take more money out.

And there seems to be one way that everyone has pretty much acquiesced and said that, yeah, there is the one way to increase revenue, and that's to play more games. If you add two more games to a 16-game season, that's an eighth more football, and you have more people going through the turnstiles and bigger TV ratings and it lasts longer. And so they could make more money that way. Of course, the down side is football's a tough game and people are going to get hurt.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I'm sorry. Doesn't that shorten careers? Players, even if they make more now, aren't they going to make less over the long term and be less able to spend it?

PESCA: It does. And it's this weird thing, because if you talk about lengthening other seasons in other sports, or even other businesses, you don't hear: Yeah, but this could have tremendous consequences for our long-term health.

Now, last year, or a couple of years ago when the idea of lengthening the seasons was trotted out there, the league said there will be more injuries, but disproportionately more. Obviously, you play two more games, sure, there'll be some more injuries. But now new statistics indicate that injuries actually go up as the season goes on. This is something that the league denies.

INSKEEP: Of course it does.

PESCA: But the statistics...

INSKEEP: People get tired.

PESCA: ...are undeniable. Yes, exactly. And even though - even with that, and even though it is the league underlining these statistics and saying look at that, most everyone inside the Players Association will privately say to you that the 18-game season is a done deal. Let's talk about some of the other things on the table.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about an injury here, because one question now is how healthy the two teams will be for the Super Bowl on Sunday - the Steelers and the Packers.

PESCA: Right, speaking of injuries. So this is the one piece of real news that's out of Dallas, and it's that the Steelers center, Maurkice Pouncey, he's most definitely going to be out of the Super Bowl.

And even though the center isn't a glamour position - you've got to look hard on the TV to see him - the Steelers' line is the worst part of their offense. But he is - the center was the best player on the line. This will allow Green Bay to get more pressure on the quarterback. It was his backup who fumbled a -or bobbled or bungled a snap in the AFC Championship game. So this is a blow, a real blow to the Steelers.

INSKEEP: Mike, always a pleasure to talk with you.

PESCA: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca, fully healthy for the Super Bowl.

This is NPR News.

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