Sunday, August 1, 2010


What’s the worst idea in sports? There are so many contenders it’s hard to know where to start.

There’s baseball’s designated-hitter rule, which alters the game’s time-honored rhythms in exchange for a few extra runs. There’s the tie-breaker process in soccer’s World Cup that has important games decided by the equivalent of a free-throw shooting contest. There’s the failure of three of tennis’s four “majors”—Wimbledon and the Australian and French Opens—to adopt the last-set tiebreaker, which led to the ludicrous 138-game set, three-day match in the last Wimbledon go-around. Murphy’s Law is as solid as Newton’s.

By me, though, the prize goes to the National Football League’s summer-training regimen, now gearing up in sweaty encampments around the land. It has the league’s behemoths slugging it out in four so-called pre-season games in preparation for its 16-game regular season. Football being the brutal game it is, the pre-season action insures that, at best, every team will enter for-real combat dinged in some way. At worst, it’ll lose a quarterback or other key player to injury, a loss that will, effectively, end its season before it begins.

The fervent prayer of every pro-football fan is that that last, inevitable outcome-- Murphy’s Law again-- happens to some other team, not his.

It doesn’t have to be that way. College teams, which have bigger rosters than their pro counterparts-- and, thus, require more winnowing-- get by fine without meaningless warmup contests, although big-time teams typically schedule a “cupcake” or two before getting down to serious business. The NFL pre-season schedule itself has varied in length, once stretching to six games before reverting to its present four in 1978.

Further, the evolution of professional sports generally has made any league’s final preparation period far less important than it used to be. Back in the day, when pros were part-timers, the notion of “getting in shape” for the season ahead had merit, but with today’s seven-figure average salaries jocks are jocks full-time, ready to go on short notice. The NFL’s off-season rookie camps, “mini-camps” and “voluntary” group-workout periods underline that broader trend. Class is in session year-around, and the coaches have good books on all their players.

Every sport has a large component of tradition, and—for reasons no one much ponders-- pro football’s dictates that summer training be as unpleasant as possible. Players are bused off to godawful places like Bourbonnais, Illinois, where they shoehorn their massive frames into tiny dorm rooms, bunk with room mates who have objectionable personal habits, and made to do hard physical labor in punishing heat.

If August is, indeed, the “dog days” month, the footballers are the dogs. It’s no wonder that players with a modicum of clout maneuver their contract signings so they’ll miss as much of summer camp as possible. That’s what Brett Favre’s annual will he-won’t he charade mostly is about.

You could, of course, preserve the sacred summer-camp-torture ritual without the pre-season games, but here is where economics come in. Even though each team’s two pre-season home outings don’t count, NFL owners charge their customers full price for them. They do it because they can—one of many things in that category.

The revenue thus obtained is what keeps the four-game pre-season intact despite good-sense considerations. There’s a move afoot to reduce the pre-season by two games but add them to the regular schedule, increasing it to 18 games. That wouldn’t help at all—the season is long enough to begin with, especially when a team can play as many as four playoff games.

The central fact about life in the NFL is that every player hurts starting with Game 1, pre-or regular-season. Without Advil or (much) stronger, the game could not exist. Sure, the players are volunteers, but they still need protection. The league last week finally ditched its flat-earth stance on head injuries by posting notices in its locker rooms recognizing their impact and urging players to report them immediately. But concussions aren’t the only way players wind up with serious, long-term health problems, and less football is the only remedy.

The NFL players’ union, traditionally as short sighted as its counterparts in other sports, should wake up and get behind this. A 16-game schedule without the pre-season wouldn’t be hard to put into effect because the owners could regain most of their lost revenues in the usual way, through higher ticket prices and TV-rights fees.

They do that almost every season anyway—just because they can. This time, for a change, it would be in a good cause.

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