The NFL is the most dominant force in American professional team sports, and its popularity and star power never have been higher. The insatiable desire of the people who run it to expand its reach is admirable, but they must proceed with caution as they push to expand the regular season.
"An 18-game schedule is not going to be easy to put in place," said Minnesota Vikings All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson, who also is the team's union rep. "That's another eighth of a season they're going to be asking us to play."
As the NFL owners and commissioner Roger Goodell worked Wednesday in Atlanta to advance the implementation of a 18-game schedule effective for the 2012 NFL season, they no doubt have taken into account both the positives and negatives of the change.
Shortening the preseason by two games and giving fans more bang for their season-ticket buck is a good impetus. There also would be a longer stretch of active exposure for the league, and along with it even more television coverage and media attention.
The drawback is overextending the game's most valuable commodity -- the players.
"Eighteen games, you got to ask yourself, how many people are truly healthy for 18 games, so will you get your true football, will you get your real football?" Baltimore Ravens Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis told AOL. "It's a lot of football and I think if fans understood what we actually go through to play in December and January, I think a lot more people would fight with us."
"Football is a sport unlike basketball or baseball, where if you have the talent you can play a long time," Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said. "Football is so tough on the human body you really can't take anything for granted."
Four other concerns with an 18-game schedule:
1. More labor trouble
It's bad timing to bring up another topic with which players might not agree. The owners and NFL Players Association remain far apart on a new collective bargaining agreement, leaving a work stoppage looming next spring. As for 2012, playing two more games regular-season games would raise more issues with players' salaries.
"If it's cut-and-dried and there are two more regular season games and they figure out the compensation, that's one thing," Hutchinson said. "But somehow I don't think that's going to be the case."
2. More players to pay
Stemming from an increased health risk and paying players more, this is a potential salary-cap problem for owners.
"When you've got more chances for guys to get hurt, you've got to have a bigger roster," said Mike Ditka, a Hall of Fame tight end and former coach of the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints.
3. More meaningless games
"Then you're looking back at the same issue you had in the preseason," said former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, now a CBS analyst.
4. More isn't necessarily better
The NFL has moved along just fine with a 16-game schedule for 32 years, and now with 32 teams the schedule has a nice even balance. Even though games are played in only six months, free agency, the draft, spring practices, minicamps and training camp already make it a virtual year-round sport. "The talent" is what makes the sport great, and putting it more at risk isn't worth it.
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