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August 23, 2010
The High Price of the N.F.L.’s Preseason Games
By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
The N.F.L. perpetrates two annual frauds: one against the American public, the other against players who give body and blood to make the league a multibillion-dollar enterprise.
The first fraud is preseason football, those empty, glamorized scrimmages that teams force on season-ticket holders as parts of the regular-season package.
The second, more dangerous fraud is training camp, which exposes veteran players to unnecessary risk and perpetuates the myth that football is more complicated than it really is.
The situations of Brett Favre and Eli Manning, Exhibits 1 and 2, make for the most compelling arguments yet for eliminating these colossal wastes of time and resources.
Favre, the N.F.L.’s 40-year-old prince of drama, waltzes into Minnesota Vikings “training camp” three weeks after everyone else and participates in four plays Sunday. Experts say Favre can pull this off because he knows the system so well.
No. Favre can pull this off because a training camp lasting several weeks is not essential. After not practicing with the Vikings until last Wednesday, he played one four-play series Sunday night, completing a pass and being sacked, in a 15-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Manning did show up for camp. In the Giants’ first preseason game, against the Jets, he took a blind-side shot and needed 12 stitches to close a three-inch gash on his forehead, causing him to miss several days of practice. All because of a meaningless game.
We talk a lot in sports about going for the glory. Where’s the glory in that?
Football at the N.F.L. level is an injury game: if you play, you will be injured. The first regular-season game is little more than two weeks away, and there has already been a rash of season-shortening and season-ending injuries. Some injuries were sustained in practice, some in the so-called games.
Who wants this? More to the point, who needs it?
There was a time in professional football when the general manager and head coach never saw their players until it was time to report to camp. In those days, players held full-time jobs in the off-season and used training camp to get in shape. Now, most players train year-round and are in shape when they report.
All N.F.L. teams hold minicamps, organized team activities (practices, sort of) and other off-season programs. But there is growing sentiment among some executives that teams may be overdoing it.
“I don’t know if the body has enough time to recuperate because you’re seeing so many soft-tissue injuries,” Jerry Reese, the Giants’ general manager, said. “There’s more opportunity for injury because there’s so much more time on the field. Then you have training camp and you go double during training camp. And you see all across the league there are a bunch of injuries.”
No one is advocating an end to training camp. Preparing for the violent nature of the game mandates camp. But why waste the N.F.L.’s most eye-catching element — its violence — in training camps and on meaningless preseason games?
“You have to get calloused a little bit, because if you go out there and just start hitting people, it’s going to be even more injuries,” Reese said. “You have to have some kind of training camp to prepare your body to go through a 16-game season.
“It’s a balancing act; I’m not sure how well we’re balancing it right now.”
N.F.L. owners will meet on Wednesday in Atlanta to discuss, among other things, a proposal to expand the regular-season schedule to 18 games and eliminate two of the four preseason games.
How can the N.F.L. wring its hands about player safety and health, then turn around and extend the regular season by two games? If owners add two games, they should compensate players by prorating their per-game salary over 18 games. Simple as that.
Additionally, season-ticket holders should no longer be required to buy tickets for preseason games. Preseason games are a sham and everyone knows it. In a recent interview on Sirius NFL Radio, Commissioner Roger Goodell said: “I have heard very clearly from fans — they do not want the preseason games. They’re not seeing the players they want. They’re not seeing the kind of quality that they expect from the N.F.L. And they are meaningless games.”
The proposal for a longer regular season will produce — or should produce — a significant public collision between the N.F.L. and the players association. In the preseason, veterans play sparingly. By effectively turning two preseason games into regular-season games, the veterans will have to work what amounts to two additional full-time shifts.
As a condition of two added games, players must receive extra compensation and teams must have extra personnel. The preseason should be substantially shortened. Rookies and young players need training camp to play their way onto the team, but for veteran players, camp is just one more hazard.
Giants linebacker Keith Bulluck said it did not make sense for players to beat one another up in camp “and then when we have to go play a team, we don’t have the player that we need.”
Bulluck recalled that in his rookie season, in 2000, most teams held two-a-day practices with lots of contact. “It was physical, very physical, when I came in,” he said.
Over the years, many teams have evolved toward more classroom work.
“Last year in Tennessee, I don’t think we had any two-a-days,” Bulluck said. “We have morning meetings all day, then we go out and practice in the afternoon.”
Referring to Giants camp, he added: “Not too many two-a-days here, either. I guess the coaches are beginning to understand that it’s more about the season. Beating the guys up in August doesn’t help in September, October, November and December.”
This much is certain: training camp is an idea that has outlived its usefulness.