Are the seasons of our major professional sports too long? Of course they are, and they’re going to stay that way.
The schedules are determined by commerce, not competition, and commerce dictates that you can’t make money if the store isn’t open. So the baseball big leaguers play 162 regular-season games before the playoffs, the basketballers and the hockeyists 82 and the footballers 16. Those numbers will go up before they go down.
The longest schedule is that of the National Football League, even though it’s by far the shortest gamewise. That’s because football players get the you-know-what kicked out of them in every game, and by season’s end they’re all nursing multiple hurts. Having the NFL’s Advil concession for a year would keep one in daiquiris forever.
The athletes solider on partly because they’re paid very well to do so, and partly because of the jock’s creed, which they’ve ingested since childhood. That holds that there’s a difference between playing hurt and playing injured, and only wimps beg off when they’re merely hurt. It’s a macho bonding thing—there is no “me” in “team.”
OK, there is, but so what?
Lately, though, the creed has been looking frayed, especially in the National Basketball Association. Basketball isn’t as bruising as football but it’s more strenuous from the waist down with starters running about three miles a game, much of it at full sprint. Add the incessant travel of the one-night-stand schedule, and predictably awful weather, and you have a regimen that would—and does-- wear down the best conditioned.
\It’s a grind that cries out for respite, and this season many of the game’s stars are getting it. With the season about half over the list of those who already have missed more than a few games reads like a league Who’s Who: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Joakim Noah, Al Jefferson, Andrew Bogut. As the year goes on here will be subtractions and additions, but look for the level to remain fairly constant.
I’m not saying that all the above-mentioned guys are feigning injury to catch a breather, but the shape of least a few of them is suspect. Bryant, brilliant in his prime, is 36 years old now, and coming off a season in which he played in just six games due to injuries. He’s returned but at times has been a shadow of his former self. He missed several games not long ago with what was described as a “sore body.” I don’t think I’d seen that term in a sports page before.
Anthony, the New York Knicks’ ace, signed a five-year, $124 million contract in the off season, but is sitting now. That there have been questions about his condition was clearly expressed in a New York Times piece that said he’s been “excused…with what the Knicks described as a sore left knee.” Following a well-worn league practice, the team is in the process of “tanking” the season, stripping its roster of veterans with an eye toward clearing salary-cap space and finishing low enough in the standings to secure a favorable position in the June draft. It’s not exactly losing on purpose, but it’s not exactly not losing on purpose, and keeping Anthony on the bench furthers the Knicks’s longer-term aims.
The opposite side of the coin—using time off to firm up teams’ title bids—is best seen in the cases of the Chicago Bulls’ Rose and Noah, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ James and the San Antonio Spurs’ stars. Rose missed most of the last two campaigns with knee injuries, and while he’s back this year he’s been walking on eggs to try to make sure he stays. He’s sat out 11 games so far, for stated reasons covering just about his entire anatomy. What’s obvious is that when he experiences any discomfort the team elects to rest rather than test the affected parts.
Noah has had foot and knee problems in the past and needs occasional time off to keep small aches from becoming large ones. James, the league’s best player, recently was idle for two weeks even though neither he nor his team claimed specific trauma; he’s said he hasn’t “felt well” all season and hopes a rest will help revive both him and the Cavs. The important thing is to have one’s team hale for the playoffs, even if it means shortchanging the paying customers during the regular season.
That strategy was employed last season by Paul Popovich, the Spurs’ canny head coach, en route to the team’s fifth NBA crown since 1999. Its veteran “Big Three” of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobli sat out a total of 36 games in 2013-14 in order to be OK at PO time. Popovich is repeating the pattern this year, although an apparent real injury to Parker (a strained hamstring) has accounted for many of the trio's vacation days.
The usually cited contrast to the current “gone fishin’” syndrome is the Bulls’ Michael Jordan, a Doberman of a competitor who played in 80 or more games in all but three of his 13 seasons in Chicago, with rarely even a momentary letdown. But that ignores the fact that burnout caused him to quit for one entire season (1993-94) and most of the next to play baseball, a leisurely pursuit by basketball standards. The long season gets to everyone, one way or another.